(In September 2013 the FDA published its own investigation. Click here to see the follow-up story)
If you’re gluten free, there is a very good chance you are eating rice once a week, several times a week or in my daughter’s case at least once a day with breakfast. When you’re told to go gluten-free with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, wheat, barley and rye are taken from your diet. Those are primary grains that we must now live without.
So what’s the substitution? Rice– is the most obvious– but quinoa is another, a lot of people do potatoes as a side dish as well.
Not only is rice something we might eat on the side with a steak, but it’s also used for any baked or grain-related foods that we want to replace our gluteny staples with: pasta, cereal and crackers to name a few!
Bottom Line: folks with celiac and gluten intolerance generally eat more rice and rice based products than people who eat the normal US diet (See photo upper right– RED X marks the products that I found in my pantry today that if we weren’t on a gluten free diet, likely would be purchased without rice in them)! So when the announcement came out that Consumer Reports was calling for Americans to limit our intake of rice because of potentially high arsenic levels….the response from the US in general might be shock, but from Gluten Free America– many might say– impossible.
What’s the Problem?
The Consumer Reports article calls the arsenic levels in some rice products “worrisome”. Arsenic in general terms is a known human carincogen. The article references the International Agency for Research on Cancer which has arsenic listed in its list of 100 Group 1 carcinogens. “It is known to cause bladder, lung and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers,” the article says.
Both the Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Reports admit that arsenic can also be found in some fruits, vegetabls and even water. According to an article by Reuters, inorganic arsenic, specifically, can be deadly in high doses and is linked to the aforementioned cancers. Organic aresenic is less concerning.
I am writing this article knowing that even my own daughter, on occasion, may have 3+ servings of rice a day, between cereal (2 bowls at breakfast), possibly rice served at school lunch and maybe a rice pasta at dinner. No we’re not an all-carb family, and that’s not a daily example of our diet — but let’s face it, in the US–we eat a lot of carbs. And many of us gluten free folks are more apt to turn to rice.
Common Gluten Free Products Tested
The brand names tested by Consumer Reports are VERY familiar to us: Arrowhead Mills, Tinkyada, Bob’s Red Mill, Trader Joe’s, Rice Dream, DeBoles, Rice Chex, Kellogg’s Gluten Free Rice Krispies and more. The list includes both regular rice and organic rice products. It seems no one who uses rice is immune. Consumer Reports says while they did test and list out certain brands, “it can’t be used for overall conclusions about specific brands”.
Consumer Reports says since there is no federal limit on arsenic in food, but a 10 ppb (parts per billion) limit on drinking water and a 5 ppb limit is the most protective standard in New Jersey. So using that as a yardstick, you can check on the products you buy by simply clicking here to see the products tested and their inorganic arsenic levels. One interesting note is that brown rice had higher levels of inorganic arsenic than white rice because the arsenic sits on the more nutritious outer layer of the rice.
In particular, Consumer Reports points out the concern about infant rice cereal. They say babies shouldn’t be exposed to this much arsenic and have asked that parents move their children to another infant cereal that is wheat, oat or corn based. And limit the rice cereal to 1/4 cup a day.
Consumer Reports also calls for the FDA to limit arsenic in rice as well as asking the Environmental Protection Agency to phase out the use of pesticides that contain arsenic.
What do we do?
At first glance, if we really were diligent, we wouldn’t purchase any premade items for us. By making everything from scratch we have control of what is in our food– including the rice content. Or we can explore different grains for our pastas, crackers and more.
But is this realistic? Rice is a staple in American food. Even more so in a gluten free diet.
For now, the FDA is not prepared to set recommendations on rice intake yet. FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg, MD said in a news release, “Our advice right now is that consumers should continue to eat a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of grains- not only for good nutrition but also to minimize any potential consequences from consuming any one particular food.” The FDA says it is in the process of testing 1200 samples from rice products and drinks (FDA’s list of products tested so far and their results click here). They says full data collection will be complete by the end of this year. Click here for FDA answers to common questions on this topic.
The end of the Consumer Reports article also offers suggestions on how to cut your arsenic risk– even for folks on the gluten-free diet. One easy change would be to rinse your rice before cooking it.
I am not recommending people change their intake of rice, you can make that decision on your own. This article was purely to bring out the information and highlight it in a gluten free way for people with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. There are several links inside this article and I encourage you to read them all and make your own decisions as we await further investigation from the US government.