Being of Singaporean Chinese descent, I eat lots of rice. Everyday. Over the past several years, I switched to brown rice because of its superior nutritional value over white rice.
Imagine the shock I got when I saw a BBC program recently which highlighted inorganic arsenic – a carcinogen – in rice. In the program, Dr Michael Mosley interviewed Prof Andy Meharg of Queen’s University, Belfast, who is an expert on rice and rice products. Prof Meharg’s research shows that all rice have arsenic. Brown rice however has 80% higher arsenic level than white because arsenic is concentrated in the bran that is removed by milling to produce white rice.
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), preliminary data have now confirmed that rice has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other foods, in part because as rice plants grow, the plant and grain tend to absorb arsenic more readily than other food crops. Regular exposure to small amounts of arsenic can increase the risk of bladder, lung, and skin cancer, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. Recent studies also suggest that arsenic exposure in utero may have effects on the baby’s immune system.
What is Arsenic?
According to the World Health Organisation (in its Fact Sheet 2016),
- Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of a number of countries.
- Arsenic is highly toxic in its inorganic form.
- Contaminated water used for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops poses the greatest threat to public health from arsenic.
- Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking-water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.
Reducing Arsenic levels in Rice
What should we do if we want to continue eating rice? The answer is all in the cooking!
Prof Meharg tested different ways of cooking rice.
In the first, he used a ratio of two parts water to one part rice, where the water is “steamed out” during cooking. This is close to the traditional way and unfortunately, retains the bulk of the arsenic in the rice.
In the second, with five parts water to one part rice, with the excess water washed off, the level of arsenic was almost halved.
And in the third method, where the rice was soaked overnight and then cooked with five parts water, the level of the arsenic was reduced by over 80 per cent.
The results are illustrated below:
Arsenic Reduction Rice Cooking Method
In a nutshell, Prof Meharg recommends the following cooking method to reduce about 80% of the arsenic from rice. I have adopted it – it’s not difficult and the rice tastes just as good!
- Soak your rice overnight – this opens up the grain and allows the arsenic to escape
- Drain the rice and rinse thoroughly with fresh water
- For every part rice add five parts water and cook until the rice is tender – do not allow it to boil dry.
- Drain the rice and rinse again with hot water to get rid of the last of the cooking water.
- Serve your reduced-arsenic rice – it’s as simple as that