FOOD MATTERS: Consumers must be wary of arsenic food scare

Yet another food scare has erupted, this time about arsenic levels in rice, a food I have loved since a mysterious, starred and striped box arrived in our home in 1945.

I have no idea what else was in that box, or how our relatively well-off family qualified for it, but I have never forgotten the delectable, milky pudding we feasted on later.

I buy white basmati rice in bulk from an Indian food supplies store in Nanaimo. I went through a period, about 25 years ago, of using only brown rice, but have succumbed to temptation in the last decade of using only Indian basmati. Now I am thankful, since it appears that this is one of the safest sources because the arsenic concentrates in the husks.

The presence of arsenic brings back an exotic memory from university days.

A friend doing advanced French tracked me to the student union café and asked if I would accompany her down the hill to the teaching hospital, where she had undertaken to do some translating for a visiting French policeman.

We were shown into a cramped room where a forensic medical specialist was waiting to start a conversation with the man from the Sûreté, who had a wooden box on the table in front of him.

Not only did I not know what “forensic” meant, but my French wasn’t up to the rapid exchanges that ended with the box passing across the table to the Glasgow specialist and the end of the meeting.

On the way up to the university gates, I asked what that was all about and was casually informed that in the box was a piece of Napoleon’s stomach which our specialist was going to test for arsenic poisoning.

We never found out any more, but I have had a vague interest in the cumulative effects of arsenic in the human system ever since.

It appears that not only is a great deal of rice being grown in the U.S. south where previously cotton was sprayed with pesticides containing arsenic, but that in the past, so were fruit orchards.

Recent reports from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Consumer Reports magazine show increased cancer risks from the arsenic levels in just a half-cup serving of some rice.

So vary your diet, avoid brown rice syrup, use orange vegetables for babies’ first solid foods, limit certain fruit juices and don’t substitute rice milk for dairy for toddlers up to four and a half.  Maintain the habit of washing rice till the water runs clear.

I limit use of rice because it’s definitely not a 100-mile diet food, anyway, and for the same reason I avoid milk substitutes from nuts and grains grown far away.


Marjorie Stewart is board chairwoman of the Nanaimo Foodshare Society. She can be reached at: marjorieandalstewart@shaw.ca.

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