Rice – saviour of the gluten-free eater, or dangerous source of toxic arsenic? There’s been a lot chat about this subject over recent months, which investigations both by the UK and by the FDA in the US.
Arsenic poisoning is serious stuff – it’s a heavy metal that is naturally found in the soil – high levels of arsenic leads to eg. stomach pain, convulsions and diaorrhea. There are also links to heart disease, cancer, stroke and other nasties.
Because arsenic can be dissolved in water, it can be absorbed by plants as they grow. Many grains, fruits and vegetables contain tiny traces of arsenic, but it has been discovered that rice naturally absorbs in it higher concentrations than other grains (and often in its most toxic form), regardless of whether it is organically grown or not. Because the body finds it very difficult to get rid of arsenic, levels can accumulate in the body over time – and the more of it you ingest, the worse the problem. Children are especially sensitive to it too.
The FDA has done quite a lot of research, with an interesting table on how much arsenic has been found in different rice products (bear in mind some of the sample sizes are very small). However, it’s worth also remembering that for centuries, millions of people have relied on a daily diet of rice – so this is very much about minimising risk rather than needing to eliminate it all together.
If you’re worried, try to find alternatives where you can. But while a substitute for rice milk or hot rice cereal can be fairly straightforward, it’s tricky when it comes to gluten-free flours because so many of them use rice flour as a key ingredient.
Thankfully, there’s a new product on the horizon. Vicki Montague, the ‘FreeFrom Fairy’, was worried about the amount of rice her daughter was eating, in particular because it was frequently the case that she’d be having it three times a day, so has decided to do something about it.
“My daughter was diagnosed with coeliac disease in 2010 after being diagnosed with cow’s milk protein and egg allergies before that. It was in 2014 that I started to read about arsenic being contained in milk. I had known for a while that under five’s were not recommended to have rice milk but until that point I stayed firmly under the duvet when it came to reading about why this was. In the back of my mind I knew that my daughter was eating a lot of rice. As soon as she went gluten-free, rice popped up in everything from her breakfast cereal in the morning, to her bread for lunch, to her pasta at tea time,” says Vicki.
“When I finally read about the occurrence of inorganic arsenic in rice I decided it was time to address my daughter’s diet. Making everything from scratch wasn’t the answer because the only gluten-free flour blends on the market either contain rice flour or a combination of bean flours (that don’t agree with any of our tummies). So, with my background in science and my love of experiments I set about creating my own flour blend that would provide my daughter with vital nutrition while at the same time being free from rice. It was important for me to create something that I could use in everything I made; I hate faffing around with hundreds of different flours (even though it is what I have done for years to create one successful blend!) and wanted to make our life as simple as possible! It also had to provide protein, fibre and calcium since these things are often lacking, but important in a gluten-free diet.
“I read about the different properties of each of the different gluten-free flours; I read about the nutritional content of them, I read about how to replicate gluten in gluten-free flours; I tried to get as many wholegrains in there as possible…in fact I confess to becoming rather an obsessed flour geek!”
Vicki has now created a wholegrain, multipurpose gluten-free flour blend that is also great for those with sensitive tummies and IBS because it contains no high FODMAP flours and no gums. The actual make-up is still under wraps at the moment, but all will soon be revealed. The flour has been repeatedly tested and Vicki is now in the process of bringing it to market, so watch this space!
NEXT WEEK – find out what happens when I use Vicki's flour to make muffins!