Would you like arsenic with that? Of course not! We all know arsenic is poisonous. In fact inorganic arsenic is a potent carcinogen, associated with higher rates of skin, bladder and lung cancers. There is no determined safe level of arsenic in rice. This points us to a more general problem--there are 'safe' levels of everything from plutonium to mercury, but nobody really knows the effects of chronic low-level exposure to these so-called 'safe' levels.
News about arsenic in our rice was first broken in a 2012 study by Consumer Reports. Despite the organization's demand, the FDA has yet to set a federal limit for arsenic in rice and rice products. Now, a new study published by Consumer Reports points to ways that children and people with food allergies could be consuming excess arsenic. Children and adults with food allergies or coelic syndrome often make use of substutute foods that are rice-based. Examples include: rice cakes as a bread substitute, rice pasta as a substitute for wheat pasta and rice milk as a substitute for dairy milk. In addition, rice cereal is a favoured baby food. This is of especial concern where young chilren are concerned, as they will be far more vulnerable to toxins such as arsenic. The new consumer report states: "rice cereal and rice pasta can have much more inorganic arsenic--a carcinogen--than our 2012 data showed...Rice cakes supply close to a child's weekly limit in one serving. Rice drinks can also be high in arsenic, and children younger than 5 shouldn't drink them instead of milk."
Consumer Reports has come up with rice levels assigning a point value to different types of rice foods, with the suggestion that we consume no more than seven points a week. As they point out, just one serving of rice cereal or rice pasta alone can put a child over the recommended weekly level.
US-grown rice can be particularly dangerous, because of our prior use of lead-arsenate insecticides (banned in the 1980s but still contaminating our land and water). Rice from the Southern states has the highest arsenic levels. Brown rice has more arsenic than white rice because arsenic tends to concentrate in the germ. Basmati rice from India, Pakistan and California had much lower levels of arsenic. And among the lowest levels of all was Bhutanese red rice.
The texts of Ayurveda devote significant space to a discussion of the merits of different kinds of rice. Basmati rice--a medieval innovation--comes under the heading of shali rice (long grain rice) and as such is considered superior to many other types of rice. However, the highest praise goes to red shali rice, best and most healthful of all types of rice. Bhutanese red rice has the benefits of a whole grain, yet is low in arsenic. It is a good source of fibre and B vitamins and contains minerals such as manganese, magnesium and molybdenum. The unique colour of red rice is associated with its content of anthocyanin and proanthocyanidins, linked to blood pressure reduction and better management of diabetes. So red rice is a smart choice both Ayurvedically and in terms of lowering arsenic consumption.
How to lower your arsenic consumption:
- Wash your rice thoroughly. This will reduce up to 30% of the arsenic
- Use trusted suppliers such as Lundberg and Lotus Foods. These suppliers have great integrity and voluntarily test their rice. Lotus is the supplier of Bhutanese red rice.
- Avoid processed rice products such as rice milk and rice pasta. These products are usually made of rice from the Southern States.
- Enjoy foods such as quinoa, millet and buckwheat. For gluten free pasta, select buckwheat noodles or a quinoa pasta.
- Give Baby a variety of foods. Rice cereal is high in arsenic. In addition, feeding babies mainly rice cereal is thought to be the reason why kids tend to favour bland, white foods such as mac 'n cheese. Introduce all kinds of foods, especially vegetables, to your baby's inquisitive palate.
What about all the arsenic I've already eaten?
If you've eaten a lot of rice and rice products down the years (especially the higher arsenic kinds), you might indeed have a higher-than-average arsenic level. Ayurveda considers this in the category of dusha visha or chronic, subclinical poisoning. According to the texts on Ayurvedic toxicology, chronic poisoning can flare up and become symptomatic when the body is under stress. So the texts recommend a specific remedy, dushivishi, for chronic poisoning. In our pharmacy, we're working on creating this formula and hope to have it available by fall (we have to grow one of the constituents ). A Pancha karma cleanse is also recommended for clearing the body of accumulated toxins. And regular use of cilantro helps chelate toxic metals and pull them out of the body.
So enjoy your rice judicioulsy, favouring basmati rice and Bhutanese red rice, and remember to keep your diet varied!
Alakananda Ma M.B., B.S. (Lond.) is an Ayurvedic Doctor (NAMA) and graduate of a top London medical school. She is co-founder of Alandi Ayurveda Clinic and Alandi Ayurveda Gurukula in Boulder Colorado, as well as a spiritual mother, teacher, flower essence maker and storyteller. Alakananda is a well known and highly respected practitioner in the Ayurveda community both nationally and internationally.
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