Living Vegan In Charlotte, NC

Arsenic In Rice? What’s A Vegan To Do?

Once again, an innocent plant is taking the blame that should go to factory farming.

This time, it’s rice.

According to some sensationalistic news articles and blogs, there is more arsenic in a serving of rice than in a glass of Aunt Martha’s elderberry  wine.  

Leanne Ely of Saving Dinner fame, for whom I have less respect every day, claims the arsenic is from pesticides and, “Rice is also very absorbent and it tends to soak up a lot of the arsenic that is naturally occurring in the soil.”  She then advises completely avoiding rice altogether!

Of course, I, too, was concerned.  As a vegan, I eat quite a lot of Indian and Asian cuisines, which feature rice prominently.  So I did my own research.

The concern comes from the November 2012 issue of Consumer Reports, which reported that traces of arsenic were found in a number of rice products. The magazine’s researchers tested 223 samples of rice and rice products from various companies and origins.

Some arsenic is indeed naturally present in air, soil, and water.   And some pesticides do contain arsenic, but a statement from the industry group USA Rice Federation said that U.S. rice growers DO NOT use pesticides with arsenic.  So where, then, is the arsenic coming from?  According to PCRM …

“Until recently, arsenic compounds were commonly added to chicken feed to limit intestinal parasites and promote growth. It also changes the color of poultry products making them more appealing to the consumer. Every year about 2 million pounds of arsenic-containing pesticides have been fed to chickens, which end up not only in chicken products but in our soil and water, as well. This occurs because arsenic-laden chicken manure is actually fed to other livestock and heavily used as a fertilizer.  Recently, the poultry industry has aimed to eliminate the use of arsenic, although the degree of compliance is not yet clear.”

Ah!  So the arsenic in rice is an unfortunate consequence of factory farmed chickens!  But … uh … wait … if chickens are eating arsenic to limit parasites and promote growth, as well as give their dead flesh a “more appealing color” … wouldn’t CHICKEN have high levels of arsenic?

According to PCRM, chicken does.  “Studies show that those who ate a generous serving of chicken had arsenic levels of more than 47 micrograms, compared with Consumer Reports’ findings that one serving of Rice Krispies (1 cup) had less than 3 micrograms.”

But no one’s telling us not to eat CHICKEN!

In fact, Leanne Ely has hundreds of chicken recipes on her website and whole-heartedly endorses the Paleo diet (a watered-down version of Atkins).  Of course, she’s making a lot of money selling weekly Paleo “menus” so she’d rather blame the rice than the chicken.

So, what can you as a consumer do to protect yourself?  A number of things:

  • Buy organic.  (Duh!)
  • Know where your rice comes from.  Rice from the American South has more arsenic than rice from California – no doubt because we have so many chicken and hog farms in the south.  Oh, yes, pigs are also given arsenic to make their dead flesh pinker, that’s why we’re all being warned about eating pork – oh, wait a minute, no we’re not.
  • Foreign-grown rice (Thailand, India) is less contaminated than inorganic or US grown rice.  Again, I’m guessing it’s because these countries do not yet have our levels of factory farming!  I recommend shopping at ethnic markets anyway because the food is so much cheaper!  My favorite Indian market, as most of you know by now, is India Grocers.  They now have two locations, one on Polk Street in Pineville and one on University City Boulevard.
  • Wash and rinse your rice.  Most Americans do not know how to do this (I didn’t until 3 years ago), because most of the rice we buy in chain groceries is already “pre-washed.”  Washing and rinsing can remove a significant amount of arsenic and other contaminants.  In addition, it removes excess starch, which is absolutely key to a light and fluffy rice!

How To Wash and Rinse Rice:

  • First, place a measure of rice on a plate and quickly look through it for anything that shouldn’t be there.  You never know.  Sometimes you may buy a bag of rice with bugs, or bugs could infiltrate your rice once it’s in your pantry.  I usually sort rice a half-cupful at a time.
  • Put the rice in a large bowl.  I use a batter bowl for washing and rinsing rice – it’s perfect!
  • Cover the rice with water.  Put your hand in the water, grab a handful of rice, and “scrub” the grains together in your hand gently.  Release.  Pick up another handful of rice and scrub.  And another.  Your water should soon look white and cloudy.
  • Drain the water from the bowl and repeat the process until the water is nearly clear.

In the examples below I’ve used long-grain, Indian-grown basmati rice, but you will have similar results using even long-grain, pre-washed Uncle Ben’s from Harris Teeter.

After first scrubbing in water. Notice how the water is white and nearly opaque.

After second scrubbing in water.

After third scrubbing in water. Notice the water is beginning to look clearer.

After fourth scrubbing in water.  Notice the water is almost clear now.

Now you are ready to cook your rice!  Tomorrow I’ll give you a really easy recipe for Basmati rice.

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6 Responses »

  1. well done research. I will pass this post on to my fellow friends!

  2. Can’the read this colour scheme on my phone… You’ve just lost a potential fan. Namely, me.

  3. Oh, there it is. Black on black did seem odd. Never mind, I may yet become a fan.

  4. You can have low levels of arsenic in your soil and your water and still have elevated levels in your rice. It’s the anaerobic microbiology in the rice paddy greatly facilitating the uptake of arsenic into the plant. Anaerobic microbes in rice paddies also put large amounts of methane ( 30 times more damaging than CO2) into the atmosphere.

    We grow our rice dryland style so we don’t have an arsenic problem.



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