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What I'm telling my patients about arsenic and rice

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  November 1, 2012 10:00 AM

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Okay. I've now read a whole lot about this whole arsenic and rice thing and I've decided I'm going to tell parents in my practice to cut back on the rice they give their children--and not give rice cereal to their babies at all.

I know, I'm late to this. I should have paid more attention. I kept putting it aside until I had some time to really read and think--and that time was elusive. But since I was thinking about my position on organic foods after the AAP came out with their report, I realized that I should have a position on rice, too.

And after doing some research, I think that we all need to eat less rice, especially babies and children. Which is too bad, because rice can be healthy. But as with mercury in fish, sometimes the risk of toxins start to offset the nutritional benefits.

So in case you missed it entirely: Consumer Reports came out with a report detailing the amount of arsenic in various brands of rice and rice-based products (like cereals or rice milk). It was scary, actually. There's an awful lot of arsenic in some of this stuff. Rice apparently absorbs arsenic more effectively than most plants, in part because it's grown in lots of water--and  a lot of the rice produced in the US is grown in places where a lot of arsenic-laden pesticide was used on cotton.

Arsenic is bad for you. It's actually a poison that can kill you. In smaller amounts, it can do things like damage the brain, nerves, blood, blood vessels, heart and skin. It can cause birth defects and cancer. While the rice producers are correct that there's no proof that arsenic in rice has lead or will lead to health problems, that doesn't mean we shouldn't be worried. According to the report, if a baby eats rice cereal twice a day, which is very common, her risk of cancer doubles. 

That's why I'm going to tell parents to avoid rice cereal. There are other kinds of cereals. That one is easy--it's definitely not a risk worth taking. And besides, rice cereal a highly refined carbohydrate that can increase the risk of obesity--that's why Dr. Greene started his White Out campaign long before this news came out, encouraging parents not to give rice cereal to their babies.

According to Consumer Reports, kids should be having no more than about one serving of rice or rice pasta a week--and the serving size is pretty small. I have a lot of Latino patients who are eating much more than that, with much larger serving sizes. 

I've been telling people to eat brown rice rather than white rice because it's healthier, because whole grains are better than refined ones--but brown rice, it turns out, has on average more arsenic than white rice. Bummer. One thing you can do, though, is cook brown rice like you might cook pasta, in lots of water--and then drain the water off. That can lower arsenic levels. 

Now, it's not like rice is the only risky food out there. It's not the only source of arsenic, either; other foods, like leafy green vegetables, juices and some seafood can contain it as well. If we were going to cut out every even slightly risky food, we wouldn't be left with much to eat. There are toxins everywhere. But when we get information like this from a reputable source, we can't ignore it.

Here's what Consumer Reports recommends for upper limits for children (serving sizes are uncooked):
  • Infant cereal (1/4 cup): one serving a day 
  • Hot cereal (1/4 cup): 1 3/4 servings a week
  • Rice-based ready-to-eat cereal (1 cup): 1 1/2 servings a week
  • Rice drink (like rice milk): none
  • Rice (1/4 cup): 1 1/4 servings a week
  • Rice pasta (2 oz): 1 1/2 servings a week
  • Rice crackers: 8-9 crackers a day
  • Rice cakes (1-3): 1 serving a week

To learn more about arsenic and how you can decrease your child's exposure, check out the website of the Environmental Working Group.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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