Millions of people are putting themselves at risk by cooking rice wrong, scientists have warned.
Recent experiments show a common method of cooking rice — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out — can expose those who eat it to traces of the poison arsenic, which contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides. A health risk by cooking rice wrong.
Andy Meharg, professor of biological sciences at Queens University Belfast, tested three ways of cooking rice for the BBC programme Trust Me, I’m a Doctor, to see whether it altered the levels of arsenic.
In the first method, Meharg used a ratio of two parts water to one part rice, where the water was “steamed out” during cooking — a method commonly used. He found this left most of the arsenic present.
When he used five parts water to one part rice and washed off the excess water, levels of arsenic were almost halved.
When the rice was soaked overnight, levels of the toxin were reduced by 80 per cent.
So the safest method of cooking rice is:
- Soak it overnight, then wash and rinse it until the water is clear
- Drain it well
- Boil in a saucepan with a ratio of five parts water to one part rice.
Meharg wrote there are two sides to rice: the grain that feeds half the world and the primary carcinogenic source of inorganic arsenic in our diet – a hint to cooking rice wrong. Rice is the only major crop grown under flooded conditions. This flooding releases inorganic arsenic, normally locked up in soil minerals, which makes it available to the plant.
Rice has, typically, 10 times more inorganic arsenic than other foods and the European Food Standards Authority has reported people who eat a lot of rice are exposed to worrying concentrations.
The first food that most people eat is rice porridge, thought suitable for weaning babies because rice is low in allergens, has good textural properties and tastes bland. As babies are rapidly growing they are at a sensitive stage of development and are known to be more susceptible to inorganic arsenic than adults.
Babies and children under 5 eat around three times more food for their bodyweight than adults, which means they have three times greater exposures to inorganic arsenic from the same food item.
The rice product market for young children, which includes biscuit crackers and cereals is booming, Meharg writes. If the child is gluten-intolerant, rice breads and rice milks can be added to this list. Gluten-intolerant adults are also high rice consumers, as are people of South-East Asian origin.
Rice milk is so high in inorganic arsenic that the UK Food Standards Agency advises children under 4 1/2 should not drink rice milk. You would be hard-pressed to find this advice on packaging or supermarket displays.
The World Health Organisation and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation have set guidelines for inorganic arsenic in rice: 200 parts per billion for white rice and 400 parts per billion for brown rice. Brown rice is higher in inorganic arsenic as arsenic is concentrated in the bran that is removed by milling to produce white rice.
The aim is to ensure the bulk of the global rice supply falls below these thresholds rather than directly focusing on the risk posed to humans of inorganic arsenic.
There are a lot of practical solutions to remove inorganic arsenic from rice; from agricultural management and cultivar selection and breeding. Rice could be sourced from regions with lower inorganic arsenic concentrations – for example, basmati rice is two to three-fold lower than rice from the EU or US.
Changing dietary practice and food consumer advice to reduce rice in diets is also an option. There are gluten-free alternatives so rethinking baby foods is obvious. Top of the list for baby foods and breakfast cereals, biscuits and snack bars marketed at young children is oats, which have other health-giving properties.