All About Food: What's in your rice and juice?

December 04, 2012|By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz
  • A bowl of hot vegetarian bhriyani rice.
A bowl of hot vegetarian bhriyani rice. (DON LEACH, HB Independent )

As if we didn't have enough to worry about with fires, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, now we have worry about arsenic in apple juice, grape juice and rice.

Consumer Reports has been warning us about the high levels of arsenic in juice for several years. In September, the magazine issued a report on arsenic in rice with which the Food and Drug Administration concurred. But the FDA has yet to establish standards for juice and rice.

Since people have been eating rice and drinking juice for a very long time, what has changed? Organic arsenic naturally occurs in soil, but pesticides have been contaminating our soil and water with inorganic arsenic, which is more dangerous. Arsenic, like other heavy metals, remains in the soil for more than 45 years after it is applied to crops.

There is a federal standard for the maximum amount of arsenic in drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion. It has long been monitored in our area, and the water quality reports indicate that we are considerably below the federal standard: Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach all have levels of around 2.3 to 2.8.


However, there is no standard for groundwater. Arsenic dissolves easily in groundwater and is readily absorbed by plants. In the American South, cotton fields were sprayed with arsenic-based pesticides to control boll weevils. Many of these fields have been converted to rice paddies, which are flooded with water. For this reason, American rice has higher amounts of arsenic than rice from elsewhere in the world. Since 1910, the U.S. has used about 1.6 million tons of arsenic for agricultural and industrial purposes. About half of that total was used since the mid-1960s. Residues linger in soil even though the use of lead arsenate in insecticides has been banned since the 1980s.

Organic basmati or jasmine rice from India or Thailand is considered the safest. California rice is the best in the U.S. Surprisingly, brown rice has more arsenic than white.

A study from the Environmental Protection Agency from 2009-10 estimated that rice provides 17% of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, putting it behind fruits and fruit juices at 18% and vegetables at 24%, leafy green being the worst (however, since we eat less of them, they are less of a risk). Because of their chemical structure, plants mistake arsenic for nutrients and readily absorb it from the soil.

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