Sunday, April 9, 2017

Arsenic and Old Rice

I'm gonna go out on a limb here and guess that most of my readers are old enough to get that joke. Cary Grant movies never go out of style, do they?

Arsenic and Old Lace - 1944

Anyhow, between my gluten free experiments, and stockpiling of food in case of who knows what, rice seems to have taken on a much more prominent role in my life than it used to have.

So... where to begin...

I've long been a lover of brown rice, and when I decided to try to cut out gluten for a while to see if it helped my digestive troubles, good old brown rice was one of the first things I turned to.

Similarly, when CatMan and I first started talking about stockpiling some food supplies, our first thought was to check the local chef's supply store to see what sort of a price we could get on an enormous bag of brown rice.

Now, before we begin on this little rice odyssey, perhaps we need a little lesson in rice anatomy. Basically, like any other grain, rice has an inedible outer hull, under which is a layer known as the bran. The job of the bran is to protect the germ, which is nestled within the bran layer. The germ is essentially the "embryo" of the grain - or the part that germinates (hence the name) into a new plant. The inner part (the white part) is called the endosperm, which provides energy (carbohydrates) for the germ to use as it grows.

So, brown rice is rice which has had only the hull removed, leaving both the bran and the germ intact. It provides many more nutrients than white rice, which has had both the germ and the bran removed.

But here's the deal. The super nutritious germ and bran are also super prone to spoiling. Along with lots of nutrients, they also contain oils, which go rancid after a while. The long and short of it is (ha ha... get it? long & short like long & short grain rice?) Well anyhow, brown rice only has a shelf life of about 6 months to a year, depending on how you store it.

Soooo... there went the plan of stocking up on brown rice for the apocalypse!

White rice, on the other hand, has a significantly longer shelf life. I even bought some from the Mormon church (which has a long tradition of self-reliance and preparedness) that is stored in giant sealed cans and has a shelf life of 30 years. Now, that's some old rice!

OK... so now on to the arsenic part.

Not sure if you've heard the hullabaloo or not, but the news has recently been filed with reports of arsenic in rice. It's not that there are little old ladies wandering through the store aisles lacing rice with arsenic or anything like that, it's that rice absorbs arsenic from the soil in which it grows. Basically, arsenic is easily soluble in water, and since rice grows in wet swamps or paddies, it tends to absorb more environmental arsenic than other grains do.

And, the rice seems to concentrate the arsenic in the bran and the germ, meaning that brown rice contains a much higher concentration of the stuff than does white rice. Another strike against my beloved brown rice!

So, where does this leave us? Umm.... that's a little bit unclear.

First of all, arsenic levels in white rice can be reduced significantly (up to 90% or so) by soaking, rinsing, and cooking the rice in lots of water and draining off the excess rather than measuring the water proportionally and allowing it all to absorb. Unfortunately, the same does not hold true for brown rice since the arsenic is bound up in the bran and germ.

Secondly, arsenic levels vary tremendously with both the type of rice, and the location in which it was grown. Aromatic rice like Jasmine and Basmati tend to absorb less arsenic. And rice grown in the US south tends to have higher levels because the soils there tend to have much higher concentrations of arsenic.

So I'm not entirely sure where that leaves me. I've been experimenting with different varieties of white rice. I've never actually cooked white rice before, so this is a new and exciting culinary adventure. I've become a huge fan of Jasmine rice - the smell is just wonderful! I think it must be that variety that's used in Chinese cuisine, because it smells just like a Chinese restaurant!

And, if you soak it overnight, it only takes about 10 minutes to cook! Amazing! I know it's not as nutritious as my beloved brown rice, but I do feel good knowing that it's not poisoning me.

Next on my list are Basmati (used in Indian cuisine) and parboiled rice. Parboiled is interesting because it's made by partially boiling the rice in the husk, before drying and removing the husk, bran and germ. This process apparently infuses some of the nutrients from the bran and germ into the rice grain, so in theory it's the best of both worlds. However, the bag says not to rinse or soak it because you will remove much of the nutrition. And the only variety I've been able to find so far was grown in Texas, which is in the arsenic belt... Hmmm...

My general conclusion with this entire topic is that when it comes to rice, the more nutritious it is, the more arsenic it contains. And I'm not really sure what that means in terms of diet and food storage. For the moment, my plan is to experiment with a variety of kinds of rice, stocking up only on the white, and parboiled. But it seems clear to me, that in order to ensure that one's nutritional needs are being met without poisoning oneself, it's a good idea not to rely on rice alone when it comes to consumption of grains.

To that end, I've also been experimenting with millet, quinoa, buckwheat and amaranth - all of which are gluten free, and don't present the same sort of arsenic dilemma. Not sure about how viable any of those grains are for long term storage, but I guess the first step is to figure out how to prepare them and if I like them. I see another post in my future...

So that's my little rice odyssey. Are you a rice fan? Does the news about arsenic in rice concern you? I'd love to hear your thoughts on this whole topic!

In the meantime, I'll leave you with this. The interwebs seem to be full of pictures of cats in "sushi costumes" I don't know what it means...