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Daily Pilot

All About Food: What's in your rice and juice?

By Elle Harrow and Terry Markowitz

4:05 PM PST, December 4, 2012

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As if we didn't have enough to worry about with fires, floods, hurricanes and earthquakes, now we have worry about arsenic in apple juice, grape juice and rice.

Consumer Reports has been warning us about the high levels of arsenic in juice for several years. In September, the magazine issued a report on arsenic in rice with which the Food and Drug Administration concurred. But the FDA has yet to establish standards for juice and rice.

Since people have been eating rice and drinking juice for a very long time, what has changed? Organic arsenic naturally occurs in soil, but pesticides have been contaminating our soil and water with inorganic arsenic, which is more dangerous. Arsenic, like other heavy metals, remains in the soil for more than 45 years after it is applied to crops.

There is a federal standard for the maximum amount of arsenic in drinking water, which is 10 parts per billion. It has long been monitored in our area, and the water quality reports indicate that we are considerably below the federal standard: Huntington Beach, Newport Beach and Laguna Beach all have levels of around 2.3 to 2.8.

However, there is no standard for groundwater. Arsenic dissolves easily in groundwater and is readily absorbed by plants. In the American South, cotton fields were sprayed with arsenic-based pesticides to control boll weevils. Many of these fields have been converted to rice paddies, which are flooded with water. For this reason, American rice has higher amounts of arsenic than rice from elsewhere in the world. Since 1910, the U.S. has used about 1.6 million tons of arsenic for agricultural and industrial purposes. About half of that total was used since the mid-1960s. Residues linger in soil even though the use of lead arsenate in insecticides has been banned since the 1980s.

Organic basmati or jasmine rice from India or Thailand is considered the safest. California rice is the best in the U.S. Surprisingly, brown rice has more arsenic than white.

A study from the Environmental Protection Agency from 2009-10 estimated that rice provides 17% of dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic, putting it behind fruits and fruit juices at 18% and vegetables at 24%, leafy green being the worst (however, since we eat less of them, they are less of a risk). Because of their chemical structure, plants mistake arsenic for nutrients and readily absorb it from the soil.

At very high levels, we know that arsenic can be fatal, but far less is known about what happens to people exposed to low levels over a long period of time. A professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health says that arsenic is clearly associated with lung, skin and bladder cancers. At lower levels, it probably causes fewer cases, but it is still risky. In children, it may cause problems with brain development, and in pregnancy, it may cause miscarriages and low birth weight. Infant cereals contain worrisome levels, rice cereal being the highest.

Here are recommended exposure levels for rice products from Consumers Union (one product per day or week as indicated):

•Infant cereal: serving size, 1/4 cup: children 1/4 cup per day; adults N/A.

•Hot cereal: serving size, 1/4 cup: children 1 1/4 servings per week; adults 2 1/2.

•Ready-to-eat cereal: serving size, 1 cup: children 1 1/2 servings per week: adults 3 servings.

•Rice drink: serving size, 1 cup: children none; adults 1/2 cup per day.

•Rice: serving size, 1/4 cup: children 1 1/4 servings per week; adults 2 servings.

•Rice pasta: serving size, 2 ounces: children 1 1/2 servings per week; adults 3 servings.

•Rice crackers: serving size, 16-18 crackers: children 1/2 serving per day; adults 1 serving.

•Rice cakes: serving size, 1-3 cakes: children 1 serving per week; adults 2 1/2 servings.

We need to get the government to phase out all pesticides containing arsenic and the use of arsenic-laden manure as fertilizer, and to ban the feeding of arsenic-containing drugs and animal by-products to animals.

ELLE HARROW and TERRY MARKOWITZ were in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. They can be reached for comments or questions at m_markowitz@cox.net.