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Can I have rice with my curry?

Have you been reading the recent media reports that state ‘Going gluten-free can increase your exposure to arsenic and mercury’?

The headlines are based upon the premise that if you don’t eat wheat (a wheat-free diet) or wheat, rye, barley and spelt (a gluten-free diet), you automatically consume a great deal more rice loaded with heavy metals.

Rice naturally contains organic arsenic, but it also absorbs & accumulates the more toxic inorganic arsenic & inorganic mercury from the soil, water and air (levels of which have been increasing due to environmental pollutants such as pesticides, herbicides, phosphate fertilizers, industrial waste and wood preservatives).

Many ‘gluten-free’ products are rice-based. High levels of inorganic arsenic have been found in rice milk, rice bran, rice-based breads, rice-based pasta, rice-based cereals, rice baby cereal, rice crackers, brown rice syrup and cereal bars containing rice or brown rice syrup.

However, these highly processed foods needn’t be a significant part of your diet. There are plenty of other foods and grains that you can consume that don’t contain high levels of this toxic trace element. Oat (in the form of porridge or oat cakes), millet, buckwheat (not a form of wheat, but a relative of rhubarb), amaranth, black wild rice (not a true grain, but an aquatic grass seed) teff and quinoa are also delicious. Alternatives to rice milk are almond, oat, hemp, hazelnut and coconut milk.

Having said that, rice, in its natural form, needn’t be completely shunned from the diet either. Brown rice is a great source of fibre (for correct bowel function), the antioxidant vitamin E (for healthy skin), magnesium (for correct nerve & muscle function), selenium (for healthy thyroid function), tryptophan (the amino acid precursor to the ‘feel good’ neurotransmitter, serotonin) and folate (which binds to monomethylarsonic and dimethylarsinic facilitating the excretion of arsenic).

Studies (including research by the FDA), indicate that cooking rice in excess water (from six to 10 parts water to one part rice), and draining the excess water, can reduce 40 to 60 percent of the inorganic arsenic content, depending on the type of rice. Purchasing rice from the Himalayan region (i.e. North Indian, Nepal and North Pakistan), rinse the rice well before cooking and avoiding rice grown in the dry season (when arsenic contaminated water is used to water the crop) can all help reduce your exposure to arsenic. So including brown rice in your diet once per week should not be a cause for concern.

Where care should be taken though, is with children, who are especially vulnerable because of their small body size, and pregnant women, who are nourishing their growing foetus. Arsenic after all is toxic to nerve cells, and may affect brain function, leading to impaired concentration, learning and memory and reduced intelligence. First vegetables, then fruit and finally organic meats are better choices for introducing solids to infants. If you want to introduce grains, then the best option is to cook up millet, quinoa or oats and puree these for your baby. Pregnant women may want to avoid consuming rice on a regular basis whilst pregnant.

The take home message is that no-one’s diet should be limited to eating large quantities of one type of food on a daily basis. The key, as always, is to diversify your diet, and eat a wide range of organic grains, as well as vegetables, fruits (and fish and meat if you are not a vegan or vegetarian).

If you wish to know more about this rice issue, the Environmental working group/EWG has produced the following useful article:

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