Swedish experts say rice cakes are full of arsenic

UPDATED: Swedish authorities warned parents on Tuesday not to feed their children rice cakes after high levels of arsenic were detected in the popular snack.

Swedish experts say rice cakes are full of arsenic
Rice cakes contain arsenic according to Swedish research. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/Scanpix

The Swedish National Food Agency (Livsmedelsverket) caused a stir in the Nordic country on Tuesday when it confirmed that a number of popular rice products contain arsenic and told parents not to let children aged under six eat rice cakes.

“Many children eat rice cakes as a snack, but unfortunately we must advise against this. Other countries are also giving this advice,” Emma Halldin Ankarberg, toxicologist at the Swedish National Food Agency, said in a statement on Tuesday.

The agency explained that arsenic in rice had been on its radar since a study in 2011-2012 found that if a child drinks rice drinks every day for several years they risk ingesting dangerous amounts of the poisonous chemical.

UK food agency FDA is also among those advising children not to consume rice drinks. And Germany's Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) recommends eating rice cakes “in moderation”.

Researchers examined 102 different rice products on the Swedish market and found that rice cakes – a snack many parents regularly give their children – contained the highest levels of the chemical, which is dangerous in larger amounts.

The company Midsona, which owns Sweden's rice cake producers Friggs, saw its shares on the Stockholm stock exchange fall by around four percent on Tuesday morning as a result of the news. It did not want to comment when asked by Swedish media but said it was studying the agency's report.

All in all, consumption of the cereal grain has been growing in Sweden in the past decades, with Swedes today eating four times more rice than in the 1960s.

“We understand that it can be difficult for those who have food traditions based heavily on rice, for example people from many Asian countries, but our advice is still to gradually try and eat less rice,” said Halldin Ankarberg.

She also advised adults to limit their consumption of rice to a few times a week.

“The conclusion is that it is good to have a varied diet, as well as to eat different brands. By doing this we decrease the risk of ingesting too much of harmful substances. This applies to all food, not just rice and rice products,” she said.

Long-term arsenic exposure is known to increase the risk of lung or bladder cancer. And brown rice, which as a wholegrain product is normally seen as the choice for health-conscious Swedes, often contains higher levels of arsenic compared to white rice.

The EU has previously agreed on a maximum level for arsenic in rice, which is set to come into effect by January 1st next year. But the Swedish National Food Agency said the maximum levels remain too high to offer sufficient protection for consumers.

“Giving advice on how much rice and rice products you should eat will not solve the problem in the long term. The Swedish National Food Agency is therefore working to further reduce the maximum levels, in order to remove products from the market that have a high arsenic content. We are also urging companies to source rice that is as arsenic-free as possible in their production,” said Halldin Ankarberg.

Arsenic is a chemical element naturally present in the environment and is absorbed by rice through irrigation water or the soil. You can affect the amount in your intake by for example boiling the rice using extra water which you then drain off before eating. 

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The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager’s dream

Although parts of Sweden are still under snow at this time of year, spring is in full swing here in Skåne in the south of Sweden. Here are The Local's top tips for what you can forage in the great outdoors this season.

The three tasty treats that make spring in Sweden a forager's dream

You might already have your go-to svampställe where you forage mushrooms in autumn, but mushrooms aren’t the only thing you can forage in Sweden. The season for fruits and berries hasn’t quite started yet, but there is a wide range of produce on offer if you know where to look.

Obviously, all of these plants grow in the wild, meaning it’s a good idea to wash them thoroughly before you use them. You should also be respectful of nature and of other would-be foragers when you’re out foraging, and make sure not to take more than your fair share to ensure there’s enough for everyone.

As with all foraged foods, only pick and eat what you know. The plants in this guide do not look similar to any poisonous plants, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry – or ask someone who knows for help.

Additionally, avoid foraging plants close to the roadside or in other areas which could be more polluted. If you haven’t tried any of these plants before, start in small doses to make sure you don’t react negatively to them.

Wild garlic plants in a park in Alnarpsparken, Skåne. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Wild garlic

These pungent green leaves are just starting to pop up in shady wooded areas, and may even hang around as late as June in some areas. Wild garlic or ramsons, known as ramslök in Swedish, smell strongly of garlic and have wide, flat, pointed leaves which grow low to the ground.

The whole plant is edible: leaves, flowers and the bulbs underground – although try not to harvest too many bulbs or the plants won’t grow back next year.

The leaves have a very strong garlic taste which gets weaker once cooked. Common recipes for wild garlic include pesto and herb butter or herbed oil, but it can generally be used instead of traditional garlic in most recipes. If you’re cooking wild garlic, add it to the dish at the last possible moment so it still retains some flavour.

You can also preserve the flower buds and seed capsules as wild garlic capers, known as ramslökskapris in Swedish, which will then keep for up to a year.

Stinging nettles. Wear gloves when harvesting these to protect yourself from their needles. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stinging nettles

Brännässlor or stinging nettles need to be cooked before eating to remove their sting, although blanching them for a couple of seconds in boiling water should do the trick. For the same reason, make sure you wear good gardening gloves when you pick them so you don’t get stung.

Nettles often grow in the same conditions as wild garlic – shady woodlands, and are often regarded as weeds.

The younger leaves are best – they can get stringy and tough as they get older.

A very traditional use for brännässlor in Sweden is nässelsoppa, a bright green soup made from blanched nettles, often topped with a boiled or poached egg.

Some Swedes may also remember eating stuvade nässlor with salmon around Easter, where the nettles are cooked with cream, butter and milk. If you can’t get hold of nettles, they can be replaced with spinach for a similar result.

You can also dry nettles and use them to make tea, or use blanched nettles to make nettle pesto.

Kirskål or ground elder, another popular foraged green for this time of year.
Photo: Jessica Gow/TT

Ground elder

Ground elder is known as kirskål in Swedish, and can be used much in the same way as spinach. It also grows in shady areas, and is an invasive species, meaning that you shouldn’t be too worried about foraging too much of it (you might even find some in your garden!).

It is quite common in parks and old gardens, but can also be found in wooded areas. The stems and older leaves can be bitter, so try to focus on foraging the tender, younger leaves.

Ground elder has been cultivated in Sweden since at least 500BC, and has been historically used as a medicinal herb and as a vegetable. This is one of the reasons it can be found in old gardens near Swedish castles or country homes, as it was grown for use in cooking.

Kirskål is available from March to September, although it is best eaten earlier in the season.

As mentioned, ground elder can replace spinach in many recipes – you could also use it for pesto, in a quiche or salad, or to make ground elder soup.