Study reveals problems with arsenic in rice and rice products

A new study conducted by the Swedish National Food Agency confirms that there is arsenic in rice and rice products. Most people in Sweden do not eat rice in quantities that could constitute a health risk. But adults who eat rice every day ingest a lot of arsenic and should try to eat less. If the rice is boiled using plenty of water, which is then drained off, the amount of arsenic in the rice can be reduced by half.

Rice cakes contain the most arsenic. The Swedish National Food Agency therefore recommends not giving rice cakes to children under the age of six.

The Swedish National Food Agency has examined 102 different rice products to see how much arsenic they contain. The aim has been to determine the level of arsenic in rice products for both adults and children that are commonly found on the Swedish market. The agency has also looked at whether different cooking methods have any significance as regards the amount of arsenic found in the cooked rice.

Levels varied between both different products and different brands of the same product. In some cases, levels of arsenic were high. The levels were not so high as to constitute an acute risk, but long-term exposure to arsenic can increase the risk of cancer and other conditions.

"The conclusion is that it is good to have a varied diet, as well as to eat different brands. By doing this we decrease the risk of ingesting too much of harmful substances. This applies to all food, not just rice and rice products," says Emma Halldin Ankarberg, toxicologist at the Swedish National Food Agency.

Not every day

Eating rice and rice products a few times a week, like most people do in Sweden, does not constitute a health risk. Children should not eat rice and rice products more than four times a week. Rice products include rice pudding, rice noodles and rice snacks.

Adults should not eat rice products every day. People who eat rice every day, or perhaps several times a day, ingest a lot of arsenic.

"We understand that it can be difficult for those who have food traditions based heavily on rice, for example people from many Asian countries, but our advice is still to gradually try and eat less rice," says Emma Halldin Ankarberg.

It is also possible to affect the amount of arsenic in rice that you cook yourself. By boiling the rice using plenty of water, which is then drained off, the level of arsenic in the rice is reduced by more than half. However, the study showed that the arsenic does not disappear just by rinsing the rice before boiling.

Rice cakes have high arsenic content

The Swedish National Food Agency's study revealed that rice cakes contain more arsenic than other rice products. A young child who eats two to four rice cakes a week is at risk of ingesting a lot of arsenic. The recommendation is therefore not to give rice cakes to children under the age of six.

"Many children eat rice cakes as a snack, but unfortunately we must advise against this. Other countries are also giving this advice," says Emma Halldin Ankarberg.

Brown rice often contains higher levels of arsenic compared to white rice. This is because arsenic is mainly concentrated in the husk of the rice, which is more common in wholegrain products.

"Normally the Swedish National Food Agency recommends opting for wholegrain products because they are better for your health. But when it comes to rice, you should only have brown rice occasionally," says Emma Halldin Ankarberg.

Maximum level for rice

Arsenic is an element that occurs naturally in the soil and bedrock. It is absorbed by plants. Rice appears to be particularly receptive to absorbing and storing high levels of arsenic.

The EU has agreed on a maximum level for arsenic in rice, which will apply as of 1 January 2016. The Swedish National Food Agency's advice will continue to apply even after these limits have come into force. This is because the maximum levels are too high to offer sufficient protection for consumers.

"Giving advice on how much rice and rice products you should eat will not solve the problem in the long term. The Swedish National Food Agency is therefore working to further reduce the maximum levels, in order to remove products from the market that have a high arsenic content. We are also urging companies to source rice that is as arsenic-free as possible in their production," says Emma Halldin Ankarberg.

Facts about the study

This year's study was a follow-up of a previous study from 2011-2012, when the Swedish National Food Agency analysed a large selection of foods aimed at children. One of the substances analysed was arsenic. Since then the Swedish National Food Agency has advised against giving rice drinks to children under the age of six. This advice still applies.

A total of 102 products were analysed in the 2015 study:
Rice (basmati, jasmine, long grain, risotto, brown), rice cakes, fresh rice pudding, breakfast cereals, rice drinks, gluten-free bread, noodles and gluten-free pasta. The products included brands from the major supermarkets, as well as less well-known brands and also organic products.

Products in the study that were adapted for people with gluten intolerance, such as pasta and bread made using rice flour, did not contain high levels of arsenic.

Arsenic levels naturally vary between different locations and can also vary from one field to another. Since arsenic is present naturally in the soil it is not possible to affect the level of arsenic by using organic growing methods. So buying organic rice does not make any difference, which was also a finding of this study.

Reviewed 2015-09-29