Should You Fear Your Next Bowl Of Rice?

Sep 21, 2012 10:01 am

Two studies shake up the food world

Rice
Photo: tamaki on Flickr
Don't be fooled by this harmless looking bowl of fluffy white rice.
 

California’s Right to Know campaigns revs up, a French study links GMOs with tumors in rats, heaps of arsenic is discovered in rice, pink slime makers sue ABC news for defamation, high levels of mercury are found in canned tuna sold to schools — it’s been chaos in the world of food politics.

But let’s focus on the two news bits that have caused the biggest scare this week: arsenic-laced rice and the tumor-afflicted French rats.

Arsenic in Rice
The good news, depending on how you look at it, is that your rice is no different than it was last week. The bad news is that rice went from being an easy dinner staple to a complicated and toxic sounding side dish. The commotion started on Wednesday when the Consumer Reports announced that rice, rice cereals and baby cereal contained “worrisome levels” of arsenic. And don’t think you’re exempt just because you stick to brown rice — arsenic levels were just a bad, if not worse.

The real concern here is the inorganic arsenic that was found in the rice along with the organic arsenic, which is less toxic. Both forms of arsenic can enter rice products and other foods (like fruits and vegetables) through the soil and water but the pertinent question is whether the arsenic is a result of natural environmental changes or agricultural products like insecticides (see Consumer Report’s handy infographic).

Currently, there is no federal regulation for arsenic levels and Consumer Reports hopes that this study will encourage the USDA, FDA and EPA to take steps to change this. In response to the report, the FDA has said it would be premature to set arsenic limits, but that it will reevaluate after it tests another 1,000 rice samples.

After delivering this blow to all rice and bean fanatics like myself, Consumer Reports offers up a few ways you can reduce your arsenic intake, two of which actually involve the continued consumption of rice: wash your rice first and use excess water when cooking it. The other two (vary your diet and look to other grains) are less reassuring.

Of course, no one was more upset to read about the study than rice producers. A statement under the arsenic facts page on the USA rice producers website reads, “There is overwhelming food safety, nutrition, scientific and medical evidence that supports the diets rich in fruits, vegetables and grains, like rice, are beneficial to the health of consumers.” We suspect the pink slime producers can sympathize with the rice producers on this one.

French GMO Study
If arsenic in rice didn’t make you queasy, the newest study on the affect of GMOs on health will — provided you can slog through the complicated analysis. According to the two-year French study, rats that were fed a diet of Monsanto’s genetically modified corn developed tumors after only four months and were more likely to die early.

But despite the harrowing conclusion, some scientists remain skeptical. In her extensive post on the study, Dr. Marion Nestle writes, “I am a strong supporter of labeling GMO foods.  Consumers have the right to know. That’s enough of a reason to support California’s Prop. 37.  There is no need to muddy the waters with difficult-to-interpret science.”  Nestle points to a lack of complete data and dose response as issues that need to be resolved in order for the paper to significantly affect the way we think of GMOs.

Whether or not eating Monsanto corn will give you tumors, most people can get behind the Right to Know campaign in California that will label foods that contain genetically modified ingredients.  

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