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The Misguided War on Rice

That box of Uncle Ben’s in your pantry is likely a lot safer than Consumer Reports would lead you to believe.
(Photo: cookbookman17/Flickr)

(Photo: cookbookman17/Flickr)

Consumer Reports has been on a crusade against rice, with the January 2015 issue promoting “new rice rules” that raise the alarm against elevated levels of arsenic found in rice and rice products. But what if the worry is not all it’s cooked up to be?

The magazine cites the risk of higher rates of a host of cancers, with particular concern for infants and toddlers due to their lower body weight and the abundance of rice-based cereals and drinks aimed at children. A video on the magazine’s website goes so far as to bluntly instruct you “Why Your Child Should Eat Less Rice.”

Rice is indeed an efficient scavenger of trace elements; as the only grain grown entirely under water, it readily absorbs arsenic that exists naturally in soils and is also introduced through pesticides. And yes, arsenic is a well-known carcinogen and poison that has contributed to a number of serious global health issues, although primarily in the dissolved form through contaminated drinking water. But conflating these two facts doesn’t make the box of Uncle Ben’s in your pantry equivalent to a box of rat poison.

If rice consumption was a dominant predictor of cancer, you’d have a hard time explaining why Asian and Hispanic populations have 35 percent and 20 percent lower rates of cancer incidences, respectively, than white populations.

For one, there is a big difference between measuring total inorganic arsenic levels through a powerful acid digestion process, as Consumer Reports did in a survey of several hundred rice products, and determining experimentally how much of the arsenic you consume through food is actually “bioaccessible” (soluble, e.g. in your stomach) or “bioavailable” (incorporated into your body and not immediately excreted). The method utilized by Consumer Reports, instead of more realistic animal or population studies, may dramatically overestimate arsenic exposures.

Then there’s the fundamental question of whether long-term, low-level exposure to arsenic even correlates at all with increased cancer risk. There is no consensus about this, due to a lack of controlled studies on statistically significant population sizes (many are now underway). But if rice consumption was a dominant predictor of cancer, you’d have a hard time explaining why Asian and Hispanic populations, with highly rice-centric diets, have 35 percent and 20 percent lower rates of cancer incidences, respectively, than white populations, according to the most recent numbers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Cutting rice out of your diet is likely way down on the list of effective strategies for reducing your cancer risk—if it’s even on the list at all. In fact, it could even prove to be harmful if you reduce your consumption of nutritious grains like rice in favor of less-healthy substitutes (mashed potatoes with butter, anyone?). Basing recommendations on a single (unreliable) attribute, in this case arsenic concentration, is misguided at best and irresponsible at worst, as it ignores the broader nutritional and health benefits associated with rice and rice products.

Another problem: the point system recently developed and promoted by Consumer Reports, while an attempt to provide useful advice for the average consumer, has its own serious flaws. It inconsistently calculates point allocations for children and adults such that the differences between the two swing wildly from product to product. It also selects among the highest arsenic concentrations measured in each product, which are often two to three times higher than the averages of what you’ll find on the supermarket shelf. Both add considerable uncertainty to the reliability of its recommendations.

Most importantly, “the new rice rules” serve primarily as an expression of Consumer Reports’ explicit frustration with a perceived lack of action by the Food and Drug Administration in setting limits on arsenic in rice. While such standards, when derived from the best available scientific data, will certainly be useful (and are widely expected to be released by the FDA in 2015), a non-regulatory agency like Consumer Reports should not leverage its well-earned public trust by replacing scientific consensus and basic statistics with its own homegrown guidelines.

So what’s a reasonable, and now likely confused, consumer to do in the meantime? Feel free to continue eating whole grains including rice, but with a remembrance that variety is the spice of life as well as a key tenet of healthy eating—you’ll find much the same culinary pleasures in buckwheat, millet, polenta, and quinoa, which the Consumer Reports study identified as having significantly lower arsenic levels.

Declaring a war on rice in your own household would be an unnecessary reaction to overly alarmist drum-beating, however, and would deprive you of sushi and your kids of rice cakes topped with peanut butter and honey—two rice products, among many, that are to almost everyone's tastes.