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Brown Rice Frown

September 20, 2012

That clunking noise you hear? That’s my head banging against the ground.

I don’t think I can take any more of this. Despair isn’t the right word. It’s more like frustration. But I’m also exasperated.

You know how the environmentalists were saying that if we didn’t take care of the Earth, we wouldn’t have clean water to drink or food to eat? And everyone thought they were crazy. Well, it looks like they were right.

A while back we learned about lead in things like grape juice. And the question comes up, what’s a heavy metal doing in the vineyards? The answer is found in the ghosts of our past. Lead-based pesticides that were applied to the fields are persistent and can remain in the soil even today. Plus there was all that exhaust from cars running on leaded gasoline that settled on nearby farmland.

The newest finding: inorganic arsenic in rice. In case you are wondering, that’s the bad kind.

You’ve got to be kidding me! With all the shenanigans going on with food these days, from GMOs to synthetic pesticides, it’s hard to make good food choices. There are landmines everywhere. Canned foods are lined with BPA, packaged goods are filled with high fructose corn syrup, artificial sweeteners are found in the most unlikely of products, meat is pumped full of antibiotics, dairy contains artificial growth hormones, and it seems like it never ends.

To make matters worse, organic standards are eroding.

So you try to make food from scratch. Whole foods, wholesome foods. You avoid conventionally grown corn, soy, and canola, and opt to eat lower on the food chain with a diet rich in legumes, whole grains, and a rainbow of vegetables.

While I like to think that we have a varied diet, brown rice does play a heavy role as one of our staple whole grains.

It is served alongside the Cuban black beans, the Louisiana red beans, and the chana masala. Rice is the base for stir fry, and leftovers get turned into fried rice. When there is just leftover rice, I’ll turn it into kimchi fried rice. There is a rice and lentil stew that I make every winter that I find to be deeply satisfying. Sometimes the kids will even enjoy a side dish of rice with butter and Parm-Reg.

And now I find out that this food beloved by health nuts for decades is worse for you than white rice (from an arsenic perspective)? Wow. That sucks.

Major news outlets were carrying the story yesterday. Here’s a rough summary of what went down. Inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen. Like partially hydrogenated fats, there is no safe amount of it. But there are no federal limits on how much a food can contain and still be sold in America. The good people behind Consumer Reports did some tests and found some numbers that were higher than the expected, and suggested limiting your consumption of rice and rice products to about a couple servings per week in total.

Because rice sits around in water, it’s especially effective for soaking up the inorganic arsenic. And a lot of it is picked up by the bran which is polished away when brown rice is converted into white.

But the news reports were really incomplete. I really wanted to have a better sense of the data. So here it is in a convenient and searchable .pdf form.

What I find really interesting about this is that I had truly assumed that most brown rice was a straight commodity. I figured that all the major national brands probably all purchased from the same collective of growers. But these findings would indicate that my assumption was completely wrong.

Because there are some brands of rice that hail from California that are much lower in arsenic than the others. And it doesn’t matter if your rice is organic or not. The large factor seems to be where it is grown. This is a blurb for the Consumer Reports piece:

[The] south-central region of the country has a long history of producing cotton, a crop that was heavily treated with arsenical pesticides for decades in part to combat the boll weevil beetle. “Extensive surveys of south central U.S. rice, by more than one research group, have consistently shown that rice from this region is elevated in inorganic arsenic compared to other rice-producing regions,” says Andrew Meharg, professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland and co-author of the book “Arsenic & Rice.” “And it does not matter relative to risk whether that arsenic comes from pesticides or is naturally occurring.”

Big sigh. Oh, and the Great Value brown rice I’ve been buying at Walmart? It’s one of the worst offenders when looking at micrograms of inorganic arsenic per serving. But in my defense, the good stuff from California isn’t much better.

Right now I’m just feeling discouraged. It’s like we can’t win. Time to cut back on the rice. Maybe the kids and Mrs. Fussy will like quinoa.

14 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    September 20, 2012 9:46 am

    This is so frustrating. Funny, I just bought some brown rice from Trader Joe’s. Argh.

  2. September 20, 2012 10:01 am

    Just last night I reached for the TJ’s brown Jasmine rice from India, but switched to quinoa instead (which I love, anyway).

  3. September 20, 2012 10:18 am

    Sometimes I make white rice because it’s faster… is it weird to feel slightly vindicated? Sigh.

  4. Eric Scheirer Stott permalink
    September 20, 2012 10:22 am

    are Steel Cut Oats still OK?

  5. September 20, 2012 11:32 am

    boo! We live on brown rice, quinoa is more expensive but guess will have to make more of it….

  6. September 20, 2012 1:39 pm

    Looks like Trader Joe’s white from India is the way to go. And it stands to reason a brown basmanti from India would also be the best choice, but I didn’t see that they tested one.

  7. PensiveEngineer permalink
    September 20, 2012 2:06 pm

    This is terrible news. Brown rice is a staple for us. We also eat lots of farro but that is just so much more expensive. Sigh.

  8. September 20, 2012 8:13 pm

    Sigh. Can I pretend that I haven’t heard this news?

  9. Elyse permalink
    September 21, 2012 8:16 am

    Here’s my question- people keep suggesting alternative grains to me, but are any grains safe, given the circumstances? Or does brown rice take up more chemicals from the soil than, say quinoa?

  10. September 21, 2012 9:07 am

    This is actually one case where the data presented is substantiated. Inspecting the techniques and scientific method employed, It looks like they did their due diligence and, barring some minor holes and assumptions, the results look consistent and have good integrity.

    I hope that the people running the rice industry take the results to heart. There’s probably little that can be done in the short term to fix this, but I’m hoping measures are taken to remove this issue for the future.

  11. September 21, 2012 1:49 pm

    I am on my iPhone, lunch at work. It’s been a crazy week and I haven’t done much non-iPhone web surfing.

    Anyway, C flat out REFUSES to eat brown rice, so we eat organic white basmati rice, from the bin at Honest Weight. I want to start experimenting with quinoa and “cauliflower rice” but haven’t had the time to try it.

    So my question is, is this just affecting brown rice? From your post it sounds like much of the arsenic is shed when blanching to white, but I could be misreading. If I am, and the arsenic is present in the white, this could be the kick in the pants we need to get off the rice. Which will make C very sad.

  12. September 21, 2012 4:30 pm

    I switched to brown rice a few years ago, after learning it contains some phytic acid, which messes with vitamin/mineral absorption. I find white rice (basmati or jasmine, specifically) to be much more delicious, thankfully, but I feel bad for people who’ve relied on brown rice as a staple. That ain’t good. But on the positive side, at least it got national attention. Maybe something will change (or people will become more aware of what’s in their food. maybe.)

  13. Deedee permalink
    September 21, 2012 5:26 pm

    A report about this came on the news as I was in the middle of trying a nice new fried rice recipe for dinner using Trader Joe’s brown rice. It tasted wonderful, but I won’t make it too often.

  14. Third Auntie permalink
    September 22, 2012 5:43 pm

    Hmmm, I can’t find any data in regard to Japanese brown rice. Guess we will take our chances and continue eating it. Besides, Japanese brown rice has tender grains and tastes really good

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