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Study Analysis: Consumer Reports 2014: “How much arsenic is in your rice?”

Nov 19, 2014

Report Summary

Photo Credit: Cookbookman17

Photo Credit: Cookbookman17

The November 2014 Consumer Reports’ “Analysis of Arsenic in Rice and Other Grains” report examined inorganic levels of arsenic in different types of rice and compared rice arsenic levels with other grains. They also expanded their analysis of arsenic in rice-containing processed foods. The data they examined included data from their 2012 test, FDA data, and 128 samples of basmati, jasmine, and sushi rice, 656 rice-containing foods, and 114 samples of non-rice grains.

They found the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in rice labeled as being from the U.S. (general), Arkansas, Louisiana, or Texas. They found the lowest levels of inorganic arsenic in basmati rice from India, Pakistan, and California, and sushi rice from the United States. These low levels of inorganic arsenic caused them to increase their recommendations for average weekly rice consumption of basmati rice from India, Pakistan, or California, and sushi rice from the U.S. (from 2 servings for adults to 4.5 servings per week, with a serving size defined as 45 grams or ¼ cup of uncooked rice). However, they maintain their recommendations of two servings for adults and 1.25 servings for children per week for other rice types.

Brown rice was consistently higher in inorganic arsenic content than white rice when comparisons were made within type. Within the brown rice categories, they found similar groupings of the highest versus lowest arsenic accumulators, with brown basmati rice from India, Pakistan, and California being lowest in inorganic arsenic.

When the report examined parboiled and quick-cooking rice, they found that while quick or instant cooking rice preparation tends to result in low levels of inorganic arsenic, rice that is parboiled has relatively high levels of arsenic.

Consumer Reports created a point system for rice-containing foods, with a recommendation that children and adults keep their consumption to 7 or fewer points per week. Foods with the highest point values for children included hot cereals (8.25 points), rice pasta (7.25 points), and rice cakes (6.25 points). Infant cereal had the lowest point values for children (1.25 points).

Their analyses of non-rice grains, including amaranth, millet, and quinoa, showed that these grains contained significantly lower levels of inorganic arsenic than rice.

Consumer Reports concludes their report with action items for the U.S. government, including completing the risk assessment of arsenic in rice, and setting a limit for arsenic in rice. The arsenic level recommended by Consumer Reports is 120 parts per billion, which is lower than the current 200 ppb Codex limit on arsenic in white rice. Consumer Reports also urges FDA to remove the approval for nitarsone, an arsenic-based drug fed to conventional turkeys and other birds. Finally, they recommend that EPA ban the use of arsenic-based pesticides, which are still allowed for use on golf courses, highway medians, and sod farms.

Differences from the 2012 report

  • Consumer Report findings that basmati rice from India, Pakistan, and California, and sushi rice from the U.S. had low levels of inorganic arsenic led them to increase their recommended consumption limits for those rice groups to 4.5 servings per week, twice as high as the 2012 report recommendations.
  • The current 2014 report also differs from the 2012 report because it recommends reduced consumption of hot cereal and rice pasta. In the 2012 report, they recommended that children could consume 1.75 servings of hot cereal and 1.5 servings of rice pasta per week. The 2014 report, however, suggests that even a single serving of hot cereal or rice pasta would exceed their recommendation of 7 points per week, giving hot cereal a point value of 8.25 and rice pasta a value of 7.25.
  • Rice crackers (grouped in the 2014 report with savory rice snacks) also saw a decrease in recommended consumption for children. The 2012 report suggests a limit of a half of a serving per day for children (or 3.5 servings per week). The 2014 report decreases this recommendation to almost 2.5 servings per week (2.75 points).
  • Rice cakes, on the other hand, had slightly higher recommended weekly limits for children in the 2014 report than the 2012 report. The 2012 report recommends no more than one serving per week of rice cakes for children, while the 2014 report gives a limit of 1.12 servings per week (with a point value of 6.25).

Points of concern with the report

  • The Consumer Reports study does not look at varieties within rice-type category. The Organic Center’s research has found significant variation in total arsenic content between rice varieties within the categories of aromatic versus non-aromatic and long- versus medium-grain rice. For example, organic long-grain Colorado and Cybonnet varieties and organic long-grain aromatic Sierra and Jazzman varieties had low total arsenic content, while organic long-grain Rondo and aromatic Jasmine 85 had high total grain arsenic. This variation in arsenic accumulation within rice types could allow for low-arsenic accumulation opportunities under specific variety management.
  • There were several similarities between the arsenic level data used by Consumer Reports and the data being analyzed by The Organic Center. Most notably, the spread of data varies widely among rice categories, with some rice types showing large differences between maximum and minimum arsenic values while others have a relatively small spread. However, based on The Organic Center’s data, one of the most important variables in determining arsenic uptake in rice is among year variation. Levels of arsenic differ widely between years, even within rice varieties and management systems. Because the Consumer Reports data do not take inter-annual variation into account, it is difficult to make broad assumptions about the consistency of their findings.
  • The cancer slope factor (CSF) used by Consumer Reports to calculate their point system for limiting rice-containing food consumption was 25.7 milligrams per kilogram per day. Cancer Slope Factors are used to estimate the risk of cancer associated with a lifetime exposure to a carcinogenic or potentially carcinogenic substance. Specifically, they represent the percent increase in risk of getting cancer associated with a dose of a particular toxin on a daily basis over an individual’s lifetime. The CSF used by Consumer Reports to calculate their point system for limiting rice-containing food consumption was proposed by the EPA IRIS 2010 draft reassessment of arsenic CSF, but that CSF was never adopted due to widespread criticism and was subsequently dropped by EPA. The current EPA CSF is 1.5 mg/kg/day, so the CSF used in this study is 17 times greater than the current EPA CSF. EPA is currently reassessing this standard, but has not released a new suggested CSF.
  • Additionally, it is important to note that the point system developed by Consumer Reports for various rice-containing food products was developed using the 95th percentile levels of inorganic arsenic for each product category in the FDA dataset, rather than the standard mean value of arsenic levels. This means that the point values they calculate for each food category will be higher than the average point value of any particular rice-containing food.

Areas of interest to the organic industry

  • It is important to note that this report does not compare organic with conventional rice. Previous press has suggested that chicken manure may be responsible for high levels of arsenic in organic rice, but this hypothesis has not been supported with data. Current views are that organic accumulation levels do not differ between organic and conventional farming practices.
  • The Organic Center’s data do not show a consistent difference in arsenic accumulation between organic and conventional rice.
  • The report points out that while brown rice has higher levels of inorganic arsenic, brown rice has other nutritional benefits over white rice. They do not suggest different consumption limits for brown versus white rice to prevent consumers from replacing their brown rice consumption with white rice.
  • The report also points out that there is no evidence that people who eat high quantities of rice have higher cancer rates than consumers who do not eat rice.
  • The report calls for government action that is in line with organic interests such as setting arsenic limits in rice, removing approval for arsenic-based drugs (nitarsone), and banning the use of arsenic-based pesticides. However, the limits in rice suggested by Consumer Reports are below those suggested by Codex (120 ppb rather than 200 ppb), and they urge FDA to develop standards for inorganic arsenic in rice-containing foods, in addition to setting standards for rice alone. 

Talking Points

  • The organic industry is dedicated to maintaining transparency and providing consumers with information about the safety of their products and farming systems.
  • The organic industry has taken a proactive stance on ensuring the healthfulness of organic rice by supporting research on methods for decreasing levels of arsenic in organic rice. For example, The Organic Center, a non-profit focused on conducting and communicating research about organic food and farming, is collaborating with USDA on projects examining the external factors affecting arsenic levels in rice. The goal of these projects is to develop improved rice varieties and rice-growing protocols to ensure that organic rice production maintains consistently low levels of arsenic.
  • The organic industry supports additional research on decreasing arsenic in rice and the health impact of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic in the food supply.
  • Research has shown that levels of arsenic in domestic rice is below international safety limits set by the Codex Alimentarius, a commission established by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and World Health Organization (WHO).
  • There is no evidence that people who eat large quantities of rice have higher rates of cancer than people who avoid rice.
  • Numerous studies have demonstrated the health benefits of diets high in whole grains including rice, and organizations such as the American Heart Association and the National Institutes of Health, along with the U.S. Dietary Guidelines recommend that consumers increase their consumption of these whole grains to improve their health.

For additional talking points and information, remember that OTA has a comprehensive White Paper on Arsenic posted on its members-only website. OTA also has a Fact Sheet on Organic Agriculture and Arsenic and a Fact Sheet on Inorganic and Organic Arsenic posted online.



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