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.
— Livsmedelsverket (@Livsmedelsverk) September 29, 2015
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.