Monday, October 29, 2012

Is It Still Safe To Eat Rice?

In light of recent shocking revelations by Consumer Reports Magazine, you may be wondering whether you should still be eating rice.

The independent testing organization discovered that many widely-eaten rice products – including white rice, brown rice, organic rice baby cereal, and rice breakfast cereals – contain arsenic, a powerful carcinogen. The products tested included well-known labels as well as store brands, organic products and conventional ones; some were aimed at the booming gluten-free market.

“In virtually every product tested, we found measurable amounts of total arsenic in its two forms,” the report stated. “We found significant levels of inorganic arsenic, which is a carcinogen, in almost every product category, along with organic arsenic, which is less toxic but still of concern.”

Some doctors immediately advised limiting rice consumption, especially in children, who are far more susceptible to the dangerous impacts of arsenic exposure. Consumer Reports suggested capping weekly servings to less than a cup of cooked rice for children and about 1½ cups of cooked rice for adults.

The FDA did not go as far as advising limiting rice consumption, or even arsenic residues in rice. But it did say that the findings have prompted it to test about 1,000 more samples by the end of the year in order to come up with “science based” recommendations.

So what’s a rice-eater to do in the meantime? This article in the Chicago Tribune offers some helpful suggestions:
  • Rinse your rice thoroughly. The FDA cites several studies indicating that “thoroughly rinsing rice until the water is clear (four to six changes of water) reduced the total arsenic content by up to approximately 25-30 percent.” 
  • Check your municipal water report. “Make sure your local water supply does not have high levels of arsenic,” says John Duxbury of Cornell University, who studies arsenic and rice. “If you do have high levels, washing can make it worse. But if you are under 10 parts per billion, it should help.” 
  • Cook and drain your rice like pasta. “We say to use about 6 parts water to 1 part rice,” says Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumer Reports. “And then drain off the water after it’s done.” The FDA says that studies show rinsing and cooking in excess water can reduce total arsenic levels by 50 to 60 percent. “However, it should be noted that for enriched rice, rinsing will also likely reduce the amount of added nutrients,” the agency said. 
  • Choose aromatic rices. For those who are already fans of Indian basmati or Thai jasmine rices, the news is not so bad. According to the hundreds of recently released test results, aromatic rice varieties show the lowest levels of inorganic arsenic. Imported basmati and jasmine rices showed about half to one-eighth the level of arsenic as regular rices grown in the Southern U.S.
Avoid brown rice
For people who eat a lot of brown rice – for instance, those who follow macrobiotic diets that consist to 50-60% of brown rice – the findings are particularly bad news, for brown rice contains significantly more arsenic than white.

And arsenic isn’t the only problem in brown rice. It is also less nutritious than many of us – myself included – have long believed. For although it does contain more nutrients than white rice, it also contains higher levels of phytic acid, a compound that blocks the absorption of the nutrients in the rice (1). Phytic acid, which is present in most whole grains and seeds, binds with minerals such as zinc, iron, calcium and magnesium, making them unavailable for absorption and assimilation.  This is why phytic acid is often referred to as an “anti-nutrient.”

To top it all off, brown rice has been found to reduce the digestibility of protein, and fat and to impair the absorption rates of sodium, potassium and phosphorus (2).

If you think all the rinsing and draining described above are too much like hard work, let me suggest a radical alternative to rice of all kinds: Cauli-Rice. (Or as it’s called in my book, Zest for Life, “Cauliflower Couscous.”)  How can I sing its praises?
  1. This dish does not contain any rice, and therefore is not likely to be laced with arsenic.
  2. It is made from cauliflower, a vegetable from the brassica family known for its powerful detoxifying and anti-cancer benefits. (In the recipe below, turmeric, onions and garlic add further cancer-fighting compounds.)
  3. Cauliflower can be bought from a local grower rather than needing to be shipped from a fragrant rice paddy half-way across the world, which is good news for locavores.
  4. This dish has a satisfying crunchy texture not unlike that of rice and works well as a side dish to any meal at which one would normally eat rice.
The most compelling argument, however, has to be cauliflower’s superior nutritional value and vastly lower caloric and carbohydrate load, as shown in the table below (selected data obtained from; see here for full profiles: cauliflower and rice).

  Cauliflower, cooked (100g) White long-grain rice, boiled (100g)
Calories 23 130
Total carbohydrate 4.4 g 28.2 g
Omega 3 fatty acids 167 mg 50 mg
Omega 6 fatty acids 13 mg 62 mg
Vitamin C 44.3 mg 0 mg
Vitamin K 13.8 mcg 0 mg
Calcium 16 mg 10 mg
Magnesium 9 mg 12 mg
Potassium 142 mg 35 mg
Dietary fiber 2.3 g 0.4 g
Estimated glycemic load 2 (low) 15 (moderate-to-high)
Inflammation rating 18 (mildly anti-inflammatory) -97 (mildly pro-inflammatory)

Note cauliflower’s anti-inflammatory rating (compared with rice’s pro-inflammatory one); its vastly lower glycemic impact, its higher fiber content and its more attractive omega-6-to-3 ratios (although absolute quantities are small, cauliflower contains 12 times more omega-3’s than omega-6’s, whereas rice has 1.24 times more omega-6’s than omega-3’s). Because cauliflower contains six times fewer carbohydrates than rice, eating it is also likely to trigger a much smaller secretion of insulin, a hormone that promotes the growth and spread of cancer cells.

I know which I’d rather eat! Without further ado, therefore, I give you:

Cauliflower Rice (serves 4 as a side-dish) (from Zest for Life)

2 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1 cauliflower, cut into florets
squeeze of lemon juice
1 tbsp chopped parsley
salt & black pepper
black sesame seeds and/or chopped parsley or cilantro

In a large pot gently warm olive oil on medium heat and cook chopped onion and garlic until translucent. Add turmeric and cook for another minute, stirring constantly.

In a food processor, chop raw cauliflower until it resembles the size of rice grains. Add cauliflower and 2fl oz/¼ cup/60ml of water to the onions and garlic, cover and cook, stirring regularly until the cauliflower is al dente – about 10 minutes. Season to taste with salt, pepper and a squeeze of lemon juice and serve immediately, sprinkled, if you like, with black sesame seeds and finely chopped herbs.

(1) Callegaro Mda D, Tirapegui J. Comparison of the nutritional value between brown rice and white rice. Arq Gastroenterol. 1996 Oct-Dec;33(4):225-31.
(2) Miyoshi H, Okuda T, Okuda K, Koishi H. Effects of brown rice on apparent digestibility and balance of nutrients in young men on low protein diets. J Nutr Sci Vitaminol (Tokyo). 1987 Jun;33(3):207-18.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Conner! I just stopped by and was reading a few of your posts. I had a quick question about your blog and was hoping you could email me back when you get the chance -emilywalsh688 (at) Thanks : )