Is rice safe? Arsenic claims need not really worry us
Claims that some rice products may contain dangerous levels of arsenic should be taken with a pinch of salt.
Arsenic is a notorious poison more associated with Victorian murderers and Agatha Christie novels than with every day food, but now it's making headlines - for being on our plates.
A recent Channel 4 Dispatches investigation claimed that some popular rice products, including some cereals, may contain potentially dangerous levels of the chemical. The programme, which tested more than 80 different products at Queen's University, Belfast, made headlines when it reported that more than half of these foods exceeded proposed new EU-recommended limits for arsenic in food. So, should we be frantically emptying out our kitchen cupboards?
The subject hit the headlines in the US last month with an article in January's issue of Food Technology. The topic of arsenic in the US diet had sparked public interest following the publication of an article in Consumer Reports magazine analysing arsenic findings from fruit juices and rice products. However, Food Technology magazine, which is published by the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), maintains that levels of consumer exposure to arsenic are still below levels of toxicological concern.
And in Ireland, Professor Alan Reilly, CEO of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), also maintains there's no need for concern. "Arsenic is naturally occurring in many foods, including rice," he explains.
A chemical which is commonly found in soil, water, soil and plant and animal tissues, arsenic occurs naturally at very low levels in many foods.
Greater levels of the inorganic form of arsenic - which can cause cancer - are indeed found in rice and rice products, he acknowledges, because rice is highly efficient at absorbing arsenic from soil and irrigation water. Much rice is grown in flooded paddy fields in countries such as Bangladesh and India, where arsenic contained in the soil is released into the water and absorbed by the growing rice.
Arsenic toxicity is a major issue in parts of Southeast Asia where many people drink water contaminated with the chemical - and consume rice as a staple of their diets. In some cases, farmers may even grow and cook their rice in the same arsenic-rich water that they drink.
However, explains Prof Reilly, although rice is an increasingly popular food in this country, it's not a staple part of the Irish diet: "We don't believe there is any real problem for Irish consumers.
"We don't rely on rice as a staple food, and as long as people are eating a healthy, balanced diet, they have no reason to be concerned," said the FSAI chief, adding that he watched the Dispatches programme and "came away wondering what they were talking about".
"I think there is an attempt to make a bit of a scare story," he observed, pointing out that the proposed new EU limits on arsenic in food, referred to by the programme, are the first of their kind and have not even been published yet.
Ireland already has a general limit for adults of one milligram per kilogram for total arsenic in food, but, says Anne Nugent, lecturer in Human Nutrition at University College Dublin's Institute of Food and Health, these regulations are a little old. She strongly welcomes the move to have up-to-date EU-wide regulations on arsenic content in food:"Setting maximum limits in food has not occurred until now in an organised fashion across Europe.
"Some countries do have maximum limits in national legislation and some countries do not. Right now, there is no EU-wide agreed limit in place; they're doing it for 2015."
The establishment of such limits is a good move, she believes, "because it allows risk assessors to have a benchmark". Nugent also makes the point that in the Dispatches programme, arsenic levels in food were being compared to regulations which had not yet been signed off.
This story really begins five years ago, when the European Food Safety Authority's Expert Panel on Contaminants recommended that dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic should be reduced. Since then, discussions have been underway on an EU-wide regulation of inorganic arsenic in foods.
Maximum levels are being considered for rice and specific rice products, including rice cakes and rice destined for production for food for infants and young children.
The FSAI is involved in these discussions on setting maximum regulatory limits for inorganic arsenic in rice and rice products, but the limits are not expected to be implemented until next year.
The FSAI has also increased its overall sampling and analysis of rice and rice products for inorganic arsenic - and has submitted all the available data to the European Food Safety Authority as part of this process.
In the meantime, Irish consumers - who, crucially, get their rice from a variety of sources - should not be unduly concerned, said Prof Reilly: "It very much depends on where the rice is grown and in what areas of the world, as well as the different varieties of rice.
"It is the view of the FSAI that the Irish consumer is not being exposed to unsafe levels of inorganic arsenic in rice," he said, adding that, in 2009, the authority warned against children up to four-and-a-half years drinking too much rice milk as a substitute for breast milk, infant formula or cows' milk.
"The milk would be a major component of their diet and because of their low body weight, there was a concern that babies would getting too much arsenic if rice milk was being used as a substitute."
Rice, says Fabio Boylan, assistant professor of Pharmacognosy at the School of Pharmacy and Pharmaceutical Sciences in Trinity College Dublin, is actually not the problem - it's our total diet we should be thinking about. "Rice is a crop that tends to absorb more arsenic from the soil than other grains," he says, pointing out that the bottom line is that the majority of foods will contain less than the Irish maximum level.
"The problem is that nowadays we are eating rice four times more often than we did 40 years ago.
"We're eating it in quite modern products such as rice cakes, cereals and children's beverages such as rice milk," he says, pointing out that children too are consuming more rice than ever before. Although individual rice products may be well within safe limits, he points out, our increased consumption of such foods means that in terms of our total diet, we may be exceeding the limits.
"That's something we need to be careful about and that's why the limit has to be re considered.
"As a consumer it's very important to have a balanced diet. Rice is not the villain here; a balanced diet is the way to go and we have to avoid eating an excess of rice as with any other food product."
It is about looking at our total dietary intake, but we must not be complacent, agrees Fagan. He says foods must continue to be monitored by the relevant bodies to ensure that they contain safe levels of arsenic and other compounds such as pesticide residues, food additives and lead. "We need to continue monitoring food."
The FSAI and the Department of Agriculture's Public Analysis Laboratory must continue to carry out the necessary surveillance of the foods we eat, and feed this information back to the European Food Safety Authority.
It is also necessary to determine what percentage of the population eats such foods, and how much of them they consume, she believes.
"However, people should not panic. Food businesses, regulatory bodies and scientists need to monitor food to ensure it is safe, but I don't think the consumer should be overly concerned at this stage."
People should certainly be aware of the concerns surrounding rice, but there's no need to drastically re-write the weekly family menu, believes Colette Kelly, lecturer in Health Promotion at NUI Galway and public health nutritionist. "People need to be aware that there is a need for a diet with a lot of variety," she says, adding that rinsing rice thoroughly and cooking it in a much greater quantity of water than usual reduces the concentration of arsenic in the cooked product.
Kelly does not recommend that families implement radical changes in diet in response to the arsenic controversy, but she recommends that parents should ensure they and their children are eating a healthy variety of foods.
"There are many different chemicals in our foods and, going forward, when it comes to the processing of our food - for example rice products - it will important for organisations such as the FSAI and the EU Food Safety Authority to work with industry to develop ways to reduce the levels of arsenic in rice products.
"I don't think people should throw out all their rice - but they should think about eating a healthy variety of food. Don't give rice to children every day and if you're worried, talk to your family doctor, your public health nurse or your local dietician."
Health & Living