Arsenic in rice

Ris i en säck

The Swedish National Food Agency has analysed the level of arsenic in rice and rice products for both children and adults. The results show that rice contains arsenic in varying amounts and that the arsenic content is high mainly in the rice cakes and brown rice products that were part of the study.

Why does rice contain arsenic?

Arsenic is naturally present in the bedrock and is absorbed by rice through the soil or irrigation water.

Is it dangerous?

The levels are not high enough to constitute acute risks, but arsenic is a substance that we should try not to ingest too much of. Long-term exposure to arsenic can increase the risk of cancer of the lungs or bladder. This is why the fact that several rice products on the market contain quite high levels is a serious concern.

What can I do as a consumer?

You can affect the amount of arsenic you ingest. If you have a well-balanced diet and choose different types of food and brands, you will reduce the risk of ingesting too much of any one substance.

Eating rice and rice products a few times a week, which is what most people do in Sweden, does not constitute a health risk. But adults should not eat rice and rice products (rice pudding, rice noodles and rice snacks) every day. Children should not eat rice or rice products more than four times a week.

People who eat rice every day, or perhaps several times a day, ingest a lot of arsenic. Although it can be difficult, perhaps because of food traditions that you are used to, our advice is to gradually try to eat less rice.

One way of reducing the amount of arsenic is to boil the rice using plenty of extra water, which is then drained off. Doing this can reduce the arsenic content in the rice by more than half.

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 we recommend opting for wholegrain products, but when it comes to rice it's a good idea to have brown rice only occasionally.

Can children eat rice?

Of course you can give rice to children. But it is always important to have a well-balanced diet, that is to eat different types of food, and to eat different brands. By doing this we decrease the risk of ingesting too much of harmful substances. This does not only apply to arsenic in rice and rice products. So eating rice and rice products a few times a week, which is what most people do in Sweden, does not constitute a health risk. However, children should not eat rice and rice products – rice pudding, rice noodles and rice snacks – more than four times a week

Children who eat rice every day, or perhaps several times a day, ingest a lot of arsenic. So you should try and vary your diet and eat less rice.

One way of reducing the amount of arsenic is to boil the rice using plenty of extra water, which is then drained off. Doing this can reduce the arsenic content in the rice by more than half.

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 we recommend opting for wholegrain products, but when it comes to rice it's a good idea to have brown rice only occasionally.

Can children eat other rice products?

The Swedish National Food Agency's 2015 study shows that a young child who eats two to four rice cakes a week is at risk of ingesting a lot of arsenic. Rice cakes provide almost no important nutrients and often contain salt. The Swedish National Food Agency therefore recommends that parents do not give rice cakes to children under the age of six.

Children over the age of six and adults can eat rice cakes occasionally, depending on how many other rice products they eat.

A previous study (2011-2012) revealed that if a child drinks rice drinks every day for several years they risk ingesting a lot of arsenic. This applies, for example, to children who are allergic to cow's milk or who are vegan and drink vegetable-based drinks as a substitute for normal milk. Young children are more sensitive than older children as they ingest more arsenic per kilo of body weight. The recommendation is therefore not to give rice drinks to children under the age of six, but to choose other enriched vegetable-based drinks instead.

My child has eaten lots of rice cakes regularly for several years – should I be concerned?

No, the effects of arsenic are mostly notable when a person is exposed to high levels of arsenic over a long period of time. But it's always a good idea to vary the diet and not each too much of a particular product. Young children are more sensitive than older children, because they weigh less and so ingest more arsenic per kilo of body weight.

What can people do if their food traditions are based on eating lots of rice?
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. If the rice is boiled using plenty of extra water, which is then drained off, it can reduce the arsenic content in the rice by more than half.

Is it possible to avoid arsenic in rice by buying organic food?

Since arsenic is naturally present 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.

Is there arsenic in specialty products such as pasta and bread for people with gluten intolerance?

Products we analysed as part of 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.

Is there any type of rice that contains less arsenic than others?

In this study, basmati and jasmine rice contained less arsenic compared to other types of rice. But the levels vary, which means we cannot say that all basmati and jasmine rice contains lower levels.

Is rice from some countries better than from others?

No, levels in the bedrock vary naturally between locations. They can even vary from one field to another. So it is hard to say that a particular country or region has higher or lower levels of arsenic in its rice compared to another.

Why don't you ban products that contain harmful substances?

Unfortunately there are harmful substances in our food that are not possible to avoid entirely. To keep levels to a minimum, many substances are subject to statutory maximum levels.

The EU has agreed on maximum levels for arsenic in rice, which came into force 1 January 2016. The Swedish National Food Agency believes the new maximum levels are too high to offer sufficient protection for consumers from a high intake of arsenic from rice and rice products. We are therefore lobbying to get future maximum levels further reduced.

What is the Swedish National Food Agency doing?

For a number of years now the Swedish National Food Agency has been analysing arsenic levels in rice and other foods, including products that are specifically for children. Studies of arsenic levels in food will continue over the next few years, both through enhanced checks and analysis of levels in various food products.

So far the studies have led to new recommendations and also to several companies taking proactive measures to reduce arsenic levels in their products.

The Swedish National Food Agency is also trying to influence legislation, so that the maximum levels that are established provide better protection for consumers from foodstuffs containing high levels of arsenic.

Which products were included in the study?

The 2015 study included 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 lesser known brands and also organic products.

This year's study is a follow-up on the previous study from 2011-2012 into the heavy metals arsenic, lead and cadmium in various products for young children: formula milk, porridge, cereal drinks and vegetable-based drinks, such as rice and oat drinks. Products for children with special medical needs were also included in the study.

Metals

Reviewed 2019-01-29