Rice is loaded with arsenic and that’s alarming for the entire Asian population for whom rice is a staple.
Why? What is arsenic? Arsenic is a chemical element (remember the table of chemical elements from high school? Arsenic is the one with the As symbol.) with various industrial uses. Arsenic is part of Chinese traditional medicine and, during the reign of Elizabeth I of England, some women (including the queen) applied a mixture of arsenic, vinegar and chalk on their skins to lighten it and retard signs of old age.
Taken in large amounts, arsenic can cause severe illness that can lead to death. The power of arsenic as a poison has been known since the first century and it has been a favorite tool to commit murder because the symptoms could be explained away as ordinary food poisoning. In history, the Borgia family is perhaps the most notorious prisoners who murdered political foes with arsenic.
How It Happens
But who would put arsenic in rice? No one. Arsenic comes from water and soil, and its presence is a natural occurrence. So, it’s unlikely that someone deliberately infected the world’s rice supply with this poisonous substance. In fact, although it would seem that rice is being singled out in recent arsenic-in-food scares, it should be noted that leafy vegetables, fruits, fruit juices and chicken meat are also vessels for passing arsenic from nature to our digestive systems.
Even people who don't eat rice, leafy vegetables, fruits, fruit juices and chicken meat may get arsenic into their digestive systems via drinking water.
At the Royal Geographic Society Arsenic Conference held in London in 2007, a paper presented named the countries with the most severe arsenic pollution and the United States landed in fourth place.
The Good News
There is good news for rice eaters, however. Much of the arsenic in rice can be removed by thoroughly rinsing the grains before cooking.
It’s a practice I have been observing from the day I learned to cook rice. Some cooks are against rinsing claiming that a lot of minerals go into the rinsing water and into the drain. I’ve always argued that in a country where rice is sold by the kilo in open vats that expose the uncooked grains to dust and bacteria carried by insects and human handling, there’s no way I’ll cook rice without rinsing it before cooking with at least three changes of water. Now, it turns out that I’ve been doing myself and my family a huge favor by refusing to follow the anti-rice rinsing advocates.
Because there is no way to ascertain if the rice used in processed rice products (including rice cereals and baby food) is thoroughly rinsed before processing, it is best to stay away from them.