The recent Consumer Reports article on the high content of inorganic arsenic in rice created quite an understandable stir. Inorganic arsenic is a known carcinogen (cancer-causing substance), and the possibility that we may be inadvertently consuming more of it than we realize is concerning.
Arsenic is a metal that occurs naturally in soil in trace amounts, but its concentration can be increased significantly from a variety of environmental pollutants. The use of arsenic-containing fertilizer, for example, can cause soil to have higher concentrations of arsenic, and adjacent groundwater can be contaminated with runoff from these soils. Here in the United States, the Environmental Protection Agency sets limits for arsenic content in public water, but no government agency monitors or regulates arsenic content in food.
While excessive arsenic levels in rice are of concern to everyone, they may be particularly problematic for people on a gluten-free diet for whom rice is arguably the staple grain. It's used in place of wheat for everything from breads and cereals to pastas and pancake mixes. Depending on which brands of rice-based products you're consuming and in what quantities, you may be getting more than you bargained for.
Scientific research on the potential health risks associated with excess arsenic consumption focuses on exposure from tainted water; it is not yet known to what extent dietary exposure to arsenic may pose a comparable risk. Until the science catches up, however, it's not unreasonable to take precautionary measures toward reducing exposure to arsenic in the diet. Indeed, this latest scare is a good reminder as to why we should never put all of our proverbial eggs into one, single basket. Just as a diversified financial portfolio helps protect you from overexposure to losses from a single economic sector or stock, so too a diversified nutritional portfolio helps protect you from overexposure to a contaminant found in a single food. Of course, dietary variety also helps ensure you get the range of necessary nutrients. If your diet is seriously bullish on rice, consider the latest headlines an impetus to start diversifying your diet.
The rice: Gluten-free brown rice pasta
The alternative: Ancient Harvest gluten-free quinoa/corn pasta
Why it's a great swap: Quinoa is a higher-protein, higher-iron alternative to rice, which, when combined with corn, produces a delicious and well-textured gluten-free pasta. The garden pagoda shape is my personal favorite!
The rice: Iron-fortified infant rice cereal
The alternative: Iron-fortified infant oatmeal
Why it's a great swap: Infant oatmeal delivers the same amount of essential iron to babies starting to wean, and it's generally digested as well as rice. It's also a whole grain, unlike many infant rice cereals, which are made from white rice. Rest assured, there's no evidence to support that rice is a superior choice for a baby's first solid food; in fact, plenty of families skip it altogether.
The rice: Rice noodles
The alternative: Buckwheat soba noodles
Why it's a great swap: Soba noodles are a perfect flavor complement to Asian soups, stir fries, and curries, and deliver more nutritional benefits than starchy rice noodles. Buckwheat is neither related to wheat nor even technically a cereal grain at all—it's the seed of a flowering plant. A 2-ounce (dry) portion of rice noodles and buckwheat soba noodles has 200 calories each, but the soba noodles deliver triple the fiber and twice the protein. They're also higher in iron. If you're on a gluten-free diet, be sure the soba noodles you buy are made with 100 percent buckwheat flour; Eden Organics makes one such product. Many popular brands, and most varieties found at Japanese restaurants, use a combination of buckwheat and regular wheat.
The rice: Rice cakes
The alternative: Glenny's Soy Crisps
Why it's a great swap: Regular rice cakes—even those made with brown rice—are a low-fiber, low-protein carb choice whose reputation as a good "diet food" baffles me. A typical 1.3 oz. bag of lightly salted Soy Crisps has an equivalent serving size of two brown rice cakes. For roughly the same calories, Soy Crisps contain five times more protein (10 grams) and 50 percent more fiber (3g). As a result, they're likely to be a far more satisfying snack. Note that Soy Crisps are made with soy that has not been genetically modified (hooray!), but they do contain a small amount of rice.
The rice: Cooked rice (white or brown)
The alternative: Millet
Why it's a great swap: If you know how to cook rice, you know how to cook millet. It's a small, spherical, grain-like seed (you may recognize it from bird food!) that, when cooked, resembles couscous in appearance. It takes just a few minutes more to cook millet than a pot of white rice, but it shares that same fluffy consistency and a similarly mild flavor profile that pairs well with a variety of cuisines. As with rice, you can also make it stickier by using a little extra water and stirring it a bit as it cooks. Nutritionally, millet is an excellent source of heart-healthy magnesium, and a good source of fiber, and it's naturally gluten-free. Arrowhead Mills and Bob's Red Mill are two national brands that offer millet.
The rice: Gluten-free, rice-based breakfast cereals
The alternative: Nature's Path Mesa Sunrise cereal
Why it's a great swap: Gluten-free, rice-based cereals may be convenient, but they're nutritionally underwhelming. Low in fiber, low in protein, and high on the glycemic index—which measures the extent to which food raises one's blood sugar—these starchy cereals aren't likely to carry you over from breakfast to lunch without a snack in between. Made with a blend of grains and seeds such as corn, buckwheat, quinoa, flax and amaranth, Mesa Sunrise is a better choice for fiber (3g versus less than 1g for Rice Krispies or Rice Chex) and protein (3g versus none). It's also low in sugar.
The rice: Rice milk
The alternative: Almond milk
Why it's a great swap: Among the dairy-free milk alternatives, almond milk is as easy to find these days as rice milk. While neither option is particularly nutritious on its own, both are generally fortified with calcium and vitamin D, which fill an important nutrient gap among folks who avoid dairy. Most brands are also fortified with vitamin E, an important antioxidant. Of the non-dairy beverages, many of my clients find almond milk to be among the better tasting options.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.