Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large of Healthy Food Guide.

Niki Bezzant: How to survive eating rice

Rice is nice, and the low-level arsenic it contains is not harmful. Photo / Michelle Hyslop
Rice is nice, and the low-level arsenic it contains is not harmful. Photo / Michelle Hyslop

People in the UK must be walking around terrified to eat anything.

In the wake of the story the other week about acrylamide in potatoes and toast ("Crispy potatoes and brown toast will give you cancer!") came the news that not only is your toast going to kill you, the rice in your curry probably is, too.

The UK media seems to love these kinds of angles. It's almost as if someone, somewhere is running a campaign to put people off eating any carbohydrates, which is not that far-fetched, when you think about it.

Anyway. The rice story was news to me when I was asked to comment on it on Radio New Zealand. It was reported there is arsenic in rice, and the method of cooking can affect how much remains in the rice and how much, therefore, we consume.

The story in the UK papers ran like this: have we all been cooking our rice wrong? Are we poisoning ourselves? It's a classic scary food story.

So what's the truth? I gave myself a crash course on arsenic in food and discovered there is indeed arsenic in some foods. Some naturally occurring (organic) and some (inorganic) from herbicides and pollutants.

It's this inorganic arsenic that can be the problem in rice. It is enough of a concern for the US FDA and the EU to create upper limits on levels allowed in infant rice cereal, and for our own FSANZ to set upper limits for inorganic arsenic in foods.

The cooking method can have an effect. The typical way we cook rice - letting the water absorb into the rice and steam it - doesn't eliminate arsenic in rice.

A method akin to cooking pasta - six to 10 parts water to one part rice, draining off the excess water - will eliminate 40-60 percent of any arsenic present.

On balance, though, I won't be following that advice. I don't fancy the soggy, waterlogged rice I'd get from cooking with all that water.

I always use the absorption method for perfect rice when I cook it. Millions of people around the world use rice cookers, which also cook this way.

I'm also not overly worried about my overall exposure to arsenic in food. According to MPI, its Total Diet Survey has found the potential arsenic content of the typical New Zealand diet remains well within safe levels.

Most of the arsenic we do consume comes from fish, and it's the organic, less worrisome kind. MPI does sound a note of caution about rice, and also two other sources of inorganic arsenic: watercress growing in geothermal regions and hijiki seaweed (which is tested for arsenic levels when it comes into the country). FSANZ is keeping an eye on this.

In the meantime I'm not changing anything. I will keep eating a varied diet including a wide range of plants, including rice. I think I'll survive.

- Herald on Sunday

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Niki Bezzant is editor-at-large of Healthy Food Guide.

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