Arsenic is a chemical element known to be carcinogenic, and it contaminates many foods that contain rice (Environmental Working Group). There is not a calculated threshold amount of ingested arsenic that is considered unsafe; EWG describes the danger like this: "all the arsenic in your diet adds to your lifetime risk of developing cancer." Rice is a common substitute for wheat when people with gluten intolerances are searching for bread options. It is also a food staple in third world countries and provides 21% of global human per capita energy and 15% of per capita protein (Knowledge Bank). As rice intake increases, the risk of arsenic poisoning and the repercussions that follow increase as well.
Arsenic naturally occurs in water and soil. Contamination is especially a problem in rice since the grain absorbs arsenic better than others do. When the contaminated rice is continuously eaten, arsenic levels increase in the consumer and can cause problems over time.
Fortunately, there is a way to cook the rice to reduce the amount of arsenic that it contains once ready to eat. A study in England at Queen's University Belfast, led by Dr. Andrew Meharg, is dedicated to changing the way rice is prepared to decrease the amount of health problems due to arsenic poisoning. Essentially, Meharg and his team started from the idea that reducing arsenic levels while cooking rice requires a much larger amount of water than normally used, and the rice must be thoroughly rinsed before and throughout the cooking process. Boiling the rice in a smaller amount of water until all of the liquid is gone actually seals the connection between the arsenic, water, and rice.
Meharg desires to promote development of affordable household rice cookers that work based on the principle described above that decreases the amount of arsenic in the prepared rice. For now, it is important to promote awareness about the risk of arsenic poisoning from rice and how it can be prepared in a safer way. Pending further support from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, hopefully manufacturers will soon be prompted to produce and sell rice cooking appliances that offer consumers a safe way to prepare and eat rice.
Check out this Consumer Reports video that discusses the connection between rice consumption and arsenic poisoning:
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