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Rice: How safe is it?

Professor Andrew Meharg, Professor of Biological Sciences at Queen's University Belfast answers some questions about rice

  • Which country's rice tends to have the lowest contamination levels (and why)?
  • The countries with the lowest inorganic arsenic in rice that we have analysed to date are from African nations, with Egypt and Tanzania being studied in detail. These are not widely available in the UK though Egyptian rice can be purchased from Halal shops. The type of rice that is lowest in inorganic arsenic and readily available is basmati rice - from India, Pakistan and Nepal. Note polished rice is always lower than brown rice. The underlying reasons for why regions differ in their inorganic content in rice has not yet been clarified - but is likely due to the different nature of soils and their management.

  • Is brown rice healthier?
  • Brown rice has more nutrients and more fibre, but more inorganic arsenic, and ultimately a lot of study needs to go into the comparative benefits and detriments of eating brown rice.

  • Why are the regulators suggesting a lower limit for babies and toddlers?
  • The answer is twofold. First, babies and young children are at a more sensitive age of development and are known to be more susceptible to the harmful effects of inorganic arsenic. Second, babies and young children consume about 3 times as much food on a body mass basis than adults and thus, for the same food item babies and young children will eat, relatively, 3-times more and consequently their inorganic arsenic exposure from that item will be 3-times higher.

  • What’s the best way to cook rice to minimise exposure to arsenic?
  • To thoroughly rinse before cooking and to cook in as large a volume of water as possible. We find that a 6:1 water to rice packet weight ratio is very effective at getting rid of most of the inorganic arsenic and that this works better the higher in inorganic arsenic the rice is, and is a good way to cook brown rice.

  • Do you still eat rice?
  • Yes, 2-3 times a week. At this frequency, exposures to inorganic arsenic are relatively low. At higher frequencies, daily, twice a day or more, exposure is considerably increased. As well as cooked rice grain, rice is in many breakfast cereals, snack bars, rice milk; and for those on gluten intolerance diets many food items are rice based such as pasta, bread and biscuits etc.