Worried about brown rice because of arsenic? You're not alone. News about alarming levels of arsenic in rice-based toddler formulas, cereal bars and energy shots may leave you wondering if it's time to back away from this iconic health food.
While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration looks into the problem, we YOU Docs have a healthier plan.
You've probably heard by now that rice has a talent for pulling arsenic from soil and water wherever it grows. The toxin accumulates in the grain's bran and germ — the most nutritious parts of the grain.
But it's the rice-intensive processed foods that may be the bigger worry. A recent study found that toddler formulas containing organic brown rice syrup had arsenic levels six times higher than federal standards for the toxin in drinking water. And that arsenic levels also were worrisome in snack bars and energy “shots” containing one or more rice ingredients: organic brown rice syrup (OBRS), plus rice flour, plus rice bran, for instance.
What's the worry? We know from studies of arsenic in drinking water that long-term exposure increases your risk for heart disease and many cancers. We don't know yet about the long-term effects of a rice-heavy diet: whether it's harmful to little kids sipping OBRS formulas and munching lots of rice-based foods or to older kids and adults who may lean on rice in order to avoid gut problems with wheat or gluten.
Right now, there are no standards for arsenic in food. Until we have some, the news about rice is a great opportunity to give your plate (and sippy cup) a healthy tune-up:
Diversify. A serving of rice a couple of times a month is probably A-OK. The rest of the time, try something new: amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, teff or wild rice (it's not actually a grain) are great alternatives. If no one in your household has a gluten intolerance, adding barley, rye, triticale and oats to your meal rotation will please palates, too.
Swap OBRS for fruit. Organic brown rice syrup's been a darling of the organic food industry and is often touted as a “better” alternative to high fructose corn syrup or cane sugar. Nonsense! A sweetener is a sweetener is a sweetener. Ditch those cereal bars (and energy shots that athletes and weekend warriors rely on for a burst of steam) for fresh fruit. A handful of strawberries, naturally sweet mango, a juicy Clementine or a fill-you-up banana ... you get the idea.
Instead of rice milk and OBRS-based toddler formulas: Try calcium-fortified soy milk, almond milk, a rice-free infant formula or breast milk. Two years ago, Britain's Food Standards Agency recommended that toddlers and little kids shouldn't be given rice milk as a replacement for formula, cow's milk or mother's milk. The reason? Low levels of arsenic in rice drinks that could add up to a big dose for tykes who drink a lot of milk every day.
Think twice about rice bran. The fiber-packed outer layer of rice seems like a healthy, natural ingredient. That's why you'll find it in a slew of high-fiber breakfast cereals, tucked into all sorts of baked goods and available in bulk for home cooking, too. For now, you may want to consider breakfast cereals and other products made with other grains: Rice bran, it turns out, may have 10 to 20 times more arsenic for the same weight as brown rice, and brown rice more than twice as much as plain white rice.
Get smart about arsenic in juice and water, too. High levels of inorganic arsenic have also been found in some brands of apple and grape juice. Sidestep it by “eating your juice,” having fresh fruit instead. An estimated 56 million North Americans also may be drinking tap water containing higher-than-healthy levels of arsenic; find out with a well test or info from your local water supplier.
The YOU Docs, Mehmet Oz, host of “The Dr. Oz Show” and Mike Roizen of Cleveland Clinic, are authors of “YOU: Losing Weight.” For more information go to www.RealAge.com.