Despite the popularity of low carb/keto diets, the recently released US Dietary Guidelines continue to support a diet containing a variety of foods, including grains. From farro to quinoa, grains of all kinds have their place on our plates. These next few weeks we’ll be covering the health gains of grains. We’ll start with rice.
From being one of the first grains we give our infant children, to one of the few gluten-free grains someone with Celiac can consume, rice has been around for years. It’s a staple in Asian, Indian, and Mexican cuisine that’s enjoyed by many and is highly nutritious.
Benefits of Rice
Rice, like other grains, is a source of complex carbohydrates, B vitamins, and minerals including iron and selenium. It’s also a source of fiber if you consume brown or wild rice. Studies show that individuals that swap white rice for brown may reduce the risk of diabetes1. Consumption of whole grains, including brown rice may also reduce post-prandial blood sugars in people dealing with diabetes. 2
Rice is also a gluten-free, gut-friendly food that may aid in the reduction of diarrhea, bloating, and other symptoms of IBS. It's part of a low FODMAP (fermentable oligo, di, and monosaccharides and polyols) diet that’s used in the treatment of IBS.3 Brown, white and wild rice are all acceptable on this diet.
Rice is a versatile and affordable grain. It can be paired with beans or lentils to make a complete protein, or used as a side dish, in soup, salad or rice pudding. It’s popular in a variety of cultures and is accessible and affordable. Rice is one of the few available foods consumed across the globe.
Risk of Arsenic
Unfortunately, rice does contain arsenic, known as the “king of poisons” as it was the demise of Napolean Bonaparte in 1821. Arsenic is naturally occurring through soil and water due to industrial waste, pesticides, animal feed, and other environmental pollutants.
You may be able to find “cleaner rice” by purchasing it from growers in California. It has half the arsenic content as Louisiana, for example. Arsenic-based insecticides were frequently used in several southern states to destroy boll weevils in cotton crops prior to being banned in 1988. Land in Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas were turned into rice fields.
Other crops have been contaminated through modern-day farming including apples, mushrooms, and other crops, but have not experienced the same scrutiny as rice. Rice plants use higher amounts of water and grow in flooded fields where they siphon arsenic out of the soil and water.
Rice bran contains higher amounts of arsenic, so avoiding brown rice has been advised. However, this limits fiber intake, which has health benefits as mentioned above. Ironically, other foods contain more arsenic than rice including fruit and fruit juices and vegetables. While it’s easy to say, “just don’t eat rice”, this is not so easy for someone dealing with Celiac or non-Celiac gluten intolerance. They rely on rice or rice-derived foods regularly in their diets.
Ways to Reduce Arsenic Exposure
Before we hit the panic-button and toss out all of our rice, there are ways to reduce arsenic exposure. Arsenic exposure is more likely to occur in un-industrialized countries due to the lack of availability of potable drinking water. A previous article in the magazine Nature noted the high incidence of arsenic poisoning in Bangladesh. Consumption of water from shallow wells was the primary culprit of arsenic poisoning, not rice.4
Private wells that are unregulated may contain high levels of arsenic. Having well water tested or using a water purifier or filter will reduce arsenic exposure.
Seafood also contains arsenic, though it’s found organically and is less hazardous than environmental arsenic. Even so, limiting seafood intake to twice per week. may reduce arsenic exposure.
Don’t rely on organic rice for less arsenic. Studies show that organic rice takes up arsenic just as much as non-organic.
Check out this handy reference on arsenic from Dartmouth.
Switch up your grains. There’s plenty of grains to choose from. We’ll cover another next week.
Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
- Malik VS, Sudha V, Wedick NM, RamyaBai M, Vijayalakshmi P, Lakshmipriya N, Gayathri R, Kokila A, Jones C, Hong B, Li R, Krishnaswamy K, Anjana RM, Spiegelman D, Willett WC, Hu FB, Mohan V. Substituting brown rice for white rice on diabetes risk factors in India: a randomized controlled trial. Br J Nutr. 2019 Jun;121(12):1389-1397.
- Åberg S, Mann J, Neumann S, Ross AB, Reynolds AN. Whole-Grain Processing and Glycemic Control in Type 2 Diabetes: A Randomized Crossover Trial. Diabetes Care. 2020 Aug;43(8):1717-1723.
- Barone, Michele et al. “Evaluation of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity in Patients with Previous Diagnosis of Irritable Bowel Syndrome: A Randomized Double-Blind Placebo-Controlled Crossover Trial.” Nutrients 12,3 705. 6 Mar. 2020, doi:10.3390/nu12030705
- Aziz Sonia N., Aziz Khwaja M. S., Boyle Kevin J. Arsenic in Drinking Water in Bangladesh: Factors Affecting Child Health. Frontiers in Public Health, VOL 2, 2014, 57
- Which Rice Has the Least Arsenic? - Consumer Reports