Wemberly worried about everything. Big things. Little things. And things in between.
–Wemberly Worried, Kevin Kenkes
The bottom line: you can add arsenic in rice to your long list of health risks you don’t need to worry about. And you can add Consumer Reports to your long list of media outlets that you can’t depend on for reliable health advice. Inaccuracy and breathless scaremongering abound.
The latest Thing That Is Killing Us: Arsenic in rice. The scare started from a Consumer Reports article from November 2012, which they titled “Arsenic in your food”. Following up on their equally-flawed arsenic-in-juice scare article, Consumer Reports has now investigated the arsenic content in rice and other cereals. What they found wasn’t particularly compelling, so, predictably, they gussied it up to exaggerate the impact of their article.
Chemicals are a modern boogeyman. Ew, chemicals. But arsenic is a natural element, and it’s part of the earth’s crust. We cannot ever get 100% of the arsenic out of our food. Our bodies have developed coping mechanisms for arsenic and other toxins. We do need to minimize exposures, and we need to be sensitive to industrial and farming practices that increase the toxin content of food. But it is unreasonable and silly to pretend that any exposure to “chemicals” is bad, or that exposures need to be driven to zero, no matter what the cost.
Arsenic in food sources occurs in two forms, organic and inorganic. Both are toxic, but inorganic arsenic is the far-more-toxic kind, the kind that we really need to think about. The Consumer Reports article actually makes that point, but then in their text and tables often reports total arsenic in contexts where inorganic (toxic) arsenic is what they ought to be reporting. For instance, they mention that a proposed World Health Organization upper limit for inorganic arsenic in white rice is 200 ppb; then in the table at the end of the article they report out total arsenic in ppb.
There is no set federal standard for the arsenic content of rice (nor many other foods), and Consumer Reports in the line right under their headline points out that these is a need for such a standard to be developed. Fair enough—because of the way it’s farmed in water, rice naturally seems to pick up more arsenic than other crops, and can account for a large portion of the exposure. But to make their point that the numbers come out too high, Consumer Reports comes up with a risk-per-serving limit of 5 mcg/serving, based on the acceptable EPA estimate for water. I’m thinking that most people consume water all day, every day, in large amounts. Rice? Probably not so much.
And even the number they use is kind of weird. They say that the federal limit is 10, but decide to use the state of New Jersey’s limit of 5. Why? If they used 10, the column of inorganic arsenic data in their table would only include measurements less than 10, so none of the numbers could be shown in scary red bold type. Go with the New Jersey number, then at least some of the quantities pop over the limit they extrapolated from water. (By the way, that’s what Consumer Reports did with their juice article, too. The federal or New Jersey limits of arsenic in water can’t just be directly applied to apple juice, rice, or other foods. The consumption patterns and exposures are very different.)
Anyway: I’ve written recently that rice cereal shouldn’t be a baby’s only food—starting at four to six months, babies can start a variety of complementary foods, including some rice, but also including other grains, fruits, veggies, meat, all sorts of things. Variety is better, both to minimize whatever toxins are present in whatever food Consumer Reports decides to test next, but also to decrease the risk of allergies and to get Junior used to the taste of different foods. It’s also more fun to mix it up a bit. So even though I disagree with their methods and the scary tone of their article, I agree with Consumer Report’s conclusion that little babies shouldn’t eat rice cereal exclusively.
Health reporting has turned into “write the scary headline, then write something to back up the headline”. Even when the primary source actually gets it right, or nearly-right, the thousand and one internet sites who amalgamate and reprint stuff turn reasonable articles into breathless screeds of horror.
If even a fraction of internet stories about the stuff that’s killing us were true, we’d all be dead.
Roy Benaroch is a pediatrician who blogs at The Pediatric Insider. He is also the author of Solving Health and Behavioral Problems from Birth through Preschool: A Parent’s Guide and A Guide to Getting the Best Health Care for Your Child.