One of the truly wonderful byproducts of going vegetarian or vegan is that it nudges you to expand your culinary horizons and venture into the vast world of delicious ethnic food.
But what if that ethnic food is doing more harm to your health than good?
Indian, Thai, Chinese, Latin-American … all these cuisines feature amazing flavors which rarely show up in American food. But something else they all feature is rice. Lots and lots of rice.
As a result, many of us eat way more rice than we used to, especially as endurance athletes with high-carbohydrate diets. We choose brown rice, of course, and many of us consider it a health food (not to mention a gluten-free one).
But last November, Consumer Reports published findings that rice contains disconcerting levels of inorganic arsenic, a carcinogen “known to cause bladder, lung, and skin cancer in humans, with the liver, kidney, and prostate now considered potential targets of arsenic-induced cancers.”
Even worse for health-conscious consumers: our beloved brown rice was found to have much higher arsenic levels than white rice.
Where does the arsenic in rice come from?
While arsenic can naturally end up in soil or water from minerals in the earth, the high levels in rice are — shocker — our fault. It’s thought that pesticides banned back in the 1980’s left higher-than-natural levels of arsenic in the soil, and certain animal feed and fertilizers made from poultry waste continue to do the same.
And because rice is grown in water-flooded conditions, arsenic in the soil finds its way into the roots of rice crops and is eventually stored in the grains. (All of this according to that same Consumer Reports article.)
What can we do?
I’m not ready to give up rice entirely just yet, but the FDA in September 2012 promised extensive testing of 1,200 samples and more information to come about the long-term safety of rice. They’ve posted the data from the first 200 samples, which demonstrate the idea that imported basmati rice generally is a safer bet than U.S.-grown varietes, but to my knowledge, the FDA hasn’t made any official recommendations yet.
In the meantime, there seems to be a lot that those of us who wish to keep on eating brown rice can do to reduce the levels of arsenic that make in onto our plates (and into our bodies) — from how we choose our rice (or sometimes, choosing an alternative) to how we prepare it.
How to Reduce Arsenic Levels in Rice
The steps below outline how I’ve started choosing and cooking rice to reduce arsenic levels in my rice; I hope you find them helpful. But please keep in mind that although my method is based on what I’ve read from several reputable sources (links are throughout and at the end of the post), it’s impossible for a layman like me to know for sure how much any of this actually works!
Understood? Good. Here goes …
Step 0: Choose your rice carefully (or even not at all!).
Before you even start cooking, there’s a way to drastically reduce the amount of arsenic you ingest — choose something besides rice! The arsenic scare is a perfect opportunity to try a substitute. Quinoa or millet come to mind as particularly rice-like, pseudo-grain alternatives.
But if you want to stick to rice, choose an imported, aromatic variety like Thai jasmine or Indian basmati. Both are available in brown versions, and contain significantly lower levels of arsenic than U.S.-grown varieties. And even within the U.S., arsenic levels in rice vary based on where the rice is grown, with the southern-grown rice containing far more of the carcinogen than rice grown in California.
Step 1: Rinse the rice until the water runs clear.
Put your rice in a fine strainer and rinse it until the water running through it comes out clear. Draining or soaking your rice beforehand, which many authentic rice recipes call for anyway, may reduce arsenic levels by 25 to 30 percent, according to a Chicago Tribune article.
This step, of course, assumes that your water supply isn’t a worse arsenic-offender than the rice itself: John Duxbury of Cornell University points out that if your water contains arsenic in levels above 10 parts per billion, rinsing the rice (Step 1) could actually increase the amount of arsenic in the end product.
Keep the strainer around; you’ll need it again to drain the cooked rice.
Step 2: Add the rice to a large pot with six times as much water as rice.
Traditionally, rice is made with a much lower ratio of water to rice — 5 cups water to 2 cups rice is what I’ve always done in the past. Now, I use 12 cups of water for 2 cups of rice. No need to be exact here, since you’ll be draining the water later, but the more water, the better. Twelve cups fits nicely in my one-gallon stockpot, so that’s the amount I use.
Why so much water? Cooking rice this way, in excess water, can reduce arsenic levels by 50 to 60 percent, as reported by (again) the Chicago Tribune.
Because you’re using more water than usual, you need to add more salt as well if you want it to flavor your rice. I use a tablespoon or so of sea salt (don’t worry; most of this amount will be washed away when you drain the water). No need for oil.
Step 3: Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover, and simmer until rice is tender.
The reason to cover the pot, as I see it, is to keep your water from evaporating. You want to retain as much water in the pot as possible, since the water is the vehicle we’re using to carry the arsenic away from the rice.
After your water boils, turn the heat to medium low and cover with a lid, then simmer gently until the rice is tender. When I cook rice this way — I’ve tried it with regular brown rice and jasmine brown rice — it takes exactly 30 minutes after the boil begins until the rice becomes perfectly tender.
Step 4: Drain and rinse the rice again, under hot water.
Using the same strainer from step 1, drain the water from the rice. Then rinse your rice for a few seconds — use hot water here so as not to cool down the rice too much.
Step 5: Dry the rice in the pot.
At this point, because you’ve cooked the rice in far more water than it can absorb, your rice is going to be unappetizingly wet. So here’s the trick to drying it.
Return the rice to the pot and cover, but place a kitchen towel between the pot and its lid. Allow the rice to sit for 10 to 15 minutes, during which time the towel will absorb a lot of the moisture in the pot, leaving you with perfectly dry rice.
Most traditional rice recipes will tell you to remove the pot from the heat for this step, but I get better results by leaving the pot over very, very low heat. I suspect the reason the heat helps is that the step of draining and rinsing the rice cools the rice somewhat, halting the steaming action that ordinarily happens.
But if you’re going to leave the heat on … be very careful not to catch your towel on fire. Burning your house down with you inside it would mostly defeat the purpose of removing arsenic from your rice.
Finally, enjoy your finished, dry, delicious, reduced-arsenic rice:
I urge you to check out the sources I’ve linked to throughout this post for more information — everything I’ve learned about this topic has been from them. Here they are once more:
- Arsenic in Your Food (Consumer Reports)
- FDA Looks for Answers on Arsenic in Rice (FDA)
- Background on Arsenic in Rice & Comments on Consumer Reports Article (John M. Duxbury, Cornell University)
- Cooking Tips to Possibly Lessen Arsenic in Rice (Chicago Tribune)
- FDA’s Arsenic in Rice and Rice Products Risk Assessment Results (FDA, 2016)