Arsenic is a naturally occurring chemical which occurs in soil, water and almost all plant and animal tissues. As a result, it occurs in very low levels in many foods.
There are 2 forms of arsenic – organic (mainly found in plant and animal tissues) and inorganic arsenic (mainly found in soil and water, but also in rice and rice-based products).
Ongoing consumption of inorganic arsenic can cause many health problems such as various cancers, heart disease, diabetes and brain and nerve cell damage. In children and teenagers, it can also cause learning problems. In pregnant women, it can increase the risk of birth defects.
Rice and rice products have higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other foods because rice is very efficient at absorbing arsenic from soil and irrigation water. In highly polluted areas, soil and water will have higher levels of arsenic which will increase the arsenic content of the rice.
In 2009, the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Expert Panel on Contaminants recommended reduced dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic. In 2015, regulations on the inorganic arsenic content of rice, specific rice products including rice cakes and rice to be used in products for infants and children were implemented by EFSA. The US Food and Drug Administration and FSANZ (Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) are looking at implementing similar legislation.
Is it safe for children to eat rice and rice products?
It is important that children have a balanced and varied diet that is not dominated by any one particular food.
If you choose to use baby rice, it should not be the only cereal you use. Ensure the product originates from a country where there are strict food safety regulations (e.g. any EU country, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada) and adhere to the recommended portion size. Infants can progress from very smooth foods very quickly, so if using baby rice, it should not be required beyond the first couple of weeks of introducing solids.
Rice milk is not suitable as a drink for any child under 5 years. If using a non-dairy milk alternative, avoid rice milk, and choose another unsweetened calcium enriched milk alternative. Note that many non-dairy milk alternatives are lower in calories and protein than cow’s milk.
Rice based snacks e.g. rice cakes can be given as part of a varied diet. Choose a product that originates from a country where there are strict food safety regulations (e.g. any EU country, Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada) and adhere to the recommended portion size. Rather using the same snacks every day, ensure a variety of foods are offered so that no one food is relied upon.
There are many varieties of rice, with brown rice being more abundant in micronutrients and fibre than white rice. As arsenic tends to accumulate in the outer germ layer, brown rice tends to be higher in arsenic than the white varieties. Rice can be included as part of a healthy balanced diet. The following tips will reduce exposure to arsenic from rice:
- Vary the sources of starchy carbohydrate rather than relying on rice. Other choices include potatoes, pasta, couscous, quinoa, noodles, bulgar, barley, polenta, cassava,and breads.
- Ensure rice portion size is not excessive e.g. for a toddler, allow approx 80g (4 heaped dessertspoons) cooked rice, and up to 160g (8 heaped dessertspoons) for an older child.
- Rinse rice well in water before cooking.
- Cook in large volumes of water (rice:water at 1:6 to 1:10) and drain excess.
- Some studies show that the following tend to be lower in arsenic: aromatic rices such as basmati and jasmine, and rices grown in the Himalayan region, including North India, North Pakistan and Nepal.
In summary, children should consume a well-balanced and varied diet for good nutrition and to minimise potential adverse consequences of consuming an excess of any one food.