Arsenic In Our Rice

Hi friends, how are you all? Hope all good.

As for me, I feel a little restless for the last few days. The time that we live in today, seems like a very disappointing situation to me especially since I read about arsenic in our rice. I mean, we keep reading about even worse stuff all the time…animal cruelty and exploitation of natural resources etc but there is some feeling of betrayal with the issue of arsenic in rice and say, if you still remember, in salt a few months back when found with high levels of potassium ferrocyanide? Don’t you feel disappointed too?

We humans, in our greed and carelessness over decades, have altered so many natural processes in our bio-environment and that too with huge long-term impacts that direct and indirect effects/consequences  are coming back to haunt us eventually.

Whole life-cycles have turned dangerous for many things…what we thought was a simple nutritious thing like rice, has become a major cause of concern now! Things have become so complicated these days…with genetically modified fruits and vegetables…to waxed produce…to cyanide in food, to lead in noodles…to the supermarket shelves full of refined products…to the various scams of misinformation on the labels, it is no wonder that most of us end up with low immunities and unexplained allergies as well as all kinds of diseases.

At first I thought this ‘arsenic in rice’ issue is just a shocker (plenty of those come, from time to time!) and half-baked information to scare us but the more I read, the more I realize it’s true and scarier in reality. Imagine we Indians start the food for a baby when she/he turns 6 months, with rice-milk kheer/pudding!

What Is Arsenic?

No doubt that Arsenic is a highly toxic trace element. It is naturally present in many forms in air, water and soil but today, the levels are alarmingly increasing beyond ‘safe’ levels due to increasing pollution, mostly through pesticides/herbicides that we spray on our crops. Its various forms can be divided into two categories:

  • Organic Arsenic – combined with carbon, found in plants and animals both
  • Inorganic Arsenic – not combined with carbon but with other elements, inorganic is the more toxic form. It is often found dissolved in water and in soil

Did You Know?

Arsenic is naturally present in most food and the water that we drink, all over the world. Some places the levels are low and at some, serious enough. Most seafood also contain the less toxic organic form of arsenic.

In general, arsenic leaves human body in a few days but inorganic arsenic tends to remain even for months, making it a concern.

How Does It All Start With Rice?

Rice is a staple food for Indians as well as many communities, all over the world. Rice is more prone to accumulate arsenic because it grows in water-filled fields, or rather polluted water fields! Rice crops absorb more water in general and the contaminated water as well as the soil (over time) make it worse!

And this arsenic is the more toxic one i.e. inorganic arsenic. This arsenic enters the food-chain through this contaminated water and gets accumulated in the plants and eventually in us humans as well as other animals (read meat).

Not just rice, it also passes on to the widely available rice-based products such as baby food, rice cereals and rice syrups etc.

Where Does This Toxic Arsenic Come From?

Majorly through human activities (not surprisingly!) such as herbicides/pesticides, fertilizers, wood preservatives, coal burning, industrial waste and mining etc. Not just leeching into our crops etc, it also contaminates ground water such as water-wells and irrigation water etc

This inorganic arsenic is highly toxic and frequent exposure to it may cause many fatal diseases such as cancer (lung, skin and bladder mostly), high blood pressure, heart diseases, diabetes and various neurological disorders. The worst part is that a fetus can get affected before she/he is even born. Even a baby, with so little of body weight is more vulnerable to the levels of arsenic in her/his food.

Small doses can cause headaches, stomach aches, drowsiness, confusion and diarrhea etc.

What Can Be Done?

It is practically impossible to test and certify every bag of rice or a rice product though it needs to be done now. Till then, we need to take things in our own hands:

  • Make sure you eat a varied diet and not just rice all the time. This would decrease your exposure to the arsenic in rice. In fact, eating a balanced and varied diet is always advised, arsenic or no. Amaranth, buckwheat and millet have almost zero arsenic content and barley has very low levels. Quinoa has much lesser than rice. Oats is good choice too
  • Wash the rice in clean, filtered water before cooking. Though this reduces the arsenic contamination by a small percentage only
  • While cooking, make sure you first leave the rice in clean filtered, boiled water for 5 minutes in 6:1 ratio, 6 being water. Throw this water after 5 minutes and cook the rice normally (like we do pasta). This might reduce the arsenic content by around 60%. Though it would reduce nutrition also. You see why I feel betrayed?
  • Some studies suggest that basmati rice has relatively lower arsenic content. In this sense, we Indians are luckier than most!
  • Brown rice has been found to have more arsenic content than white rice as the arsenic gets accumulated in the bran. And we thought brown was better than white because of this bran!!
  • Do know that it doesn’t matter much whether your rice is organic or wild or red, in terms of arsenic contamination as it comes from the soil/water which can retain inorganic arsenic for more than 50 years
  • Veggies such as broccoli, cabbage, kale etc are found to help with better toxin flush-out in our bodies as they contain a compound called sulforaphane
  • Work on your gut-health
  • Some brands already do (hopefully more would start now) publish on their product-labels, their independent testing for arsenic levels
  • Be very careful while choosing rice and rice-products for babies as they have less body weight
  • People who are on gluten-free diets need to be all the more careful if their gluten-free diet is rich in rice

In The End

The only solace in this whole arsenic-rice saga is that arsenic is water soluble and hence leaves our bodies in a few days if our exposure is limited. We can adopt a cooking method which would remove a lot of contamination. Also a varied diet with more grains etc, can reduce our risk.

And very important, as humans let’s work in some way, in our own capacity to keep our planet a little safer by being more vigilant and thoughtful. Hard and inconvenient but there is no easy way, is there?

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Till next Friday

Love, Health & Peace