Rice is the most important staple food for approximately half the world's population, and is a major component in the diet of many others. It is the second most widely consumed cereal grain worldwide, and it has been said that "a billion Chinese can't be wrong". But is that really true? The global food industry is worth trillions of dollars, which is an incentive strong enough to keep important information about the dangers of processed food away from the public eye. We consume rice in its raw form, in rice milk, in rice flour, in rice crisps and in many other forms, without giving any thought to the risks hidden in these seemingly innocent white grains. In the following paragraphs I will discuss several of the risks with which rice consumers are faced, supported by links to authentic, peer-reviewed scientific publications. I recommend that you read this article to its end not only to fully comprehend the dangers of eating rice, but also to learn a valuable lesson in critical thinking and in scientific skepticism.

Davidson Online provides scientific information only and should not be regarded as an alternative to professional medical or nutritional advice. This article is to be cited only as a whole and not just parts of it.

1. A survey of the epidemiological literature in 2008 revealed that China is ranked 2nd in the world in stomach cancer morbidity with more than 350,000 patients. And of course the number one food in China is…rice. [1]

2. A quick search in the National Library of Medicine (the biggest source for biological and medical information) reveals that 2,420(!) publications contain both 'cancer' and 'rice'. [2]

3. Rice contains dangerous levels of arsenic, cadmium, selenium and other toxic substances. [3,4,5,6,7,8,9]

4. A correlation between rice consumption and various forms of gastrointestinal cancers (especially stomach cancer) has been found in several regions of the world, not only in Asia. [10,11,12,13,14,15]

5. Talc and asbestos are added to rice in order to refine the shape of the grains. These are two dangerous compounds that have been directly linked to various cancers.[16,17,18]

6. Rice consumption is destructive to the structure of the stomach. [19]

7. Consumption of rice milk leads to severe nutritional deficits in toddlers under two years of age. [20]

8. Rice flour has been associated with severe inflammations. [21,22]

9. Rice consumption can lead to asthma. [23]

10. Rice causes severe inflammation of the intestines. [24]
 

All of the above findings are real and were published in the scientific literature. Yet

all this is complete nonsense!

The principle behind this method is simple and is based on 'cherry picking', a technique commonly used by many internet bloggers. Simply put, it means "shoot an arrow and draw a target around its landing spot". The writer sets a goal or a conspiracy theory he wishes to promote and begins to collect publications that support it, disregarding any contradictory information and never failing to manipulate any finding to accommodate his own needs, all under the pretext of him "only being the messenger who lets the public decide what to do with the information". The motivation is not always out of maliciousness, but simply unawareness. It is very convenient and easy for one to embrace studies that support his opinion and to neglect those that contradict it, at times accusing the latter of corruption. A prominent example is the theory that milk and its products can cause cancer: studies were presented in a selective manner, data were distorted and circumstantial connections were widely employed (colon cancer is rare in China, milk is not commonly consumed in China, so milk must cause colon cancer…). A short time after this story was published several inquiries were made that refuted most of the arguments on which this theory had been based. In order to illustrate how this method is inferior, in the second part of this article I will contradict the very same arguments that I myself presented:

1. Such a survey reveals a correlation but does not prove cause and effect. How about a study demonstrating a correlation between chocolate consumption and the number of Nobel Prize laureates? [26] Or better yet – the disappearance of pirates and global warming? [27] Such studies, of course, should be taken with a grain of salt at the least, as correlative findings are a major misleading technique employed by conspiracy theorists.

2. It is true that thousands of publications can be retrieved with the search words of 'cancer' and 'rice'. Then again, a significant portion of these are there simply because they were written by scientists with the last name of Rice… Also, many others actually report how organic compounds found in rice are rather anti-cancerous. So the bottom line is that while I am not trying to say that rice can cure cancer, it certainly doesn't seem to cause it.

3. These toxic elements are indeed found near some industrial zones in countries such as China and Cambodia. The articles that were given as examples discuss particular cases of specific rice fields, and not rice as a whole.

4. All of these are ecological studies that examined sectors within a population (and not individuals), either searching for a correlation between a particular diet and morbidity or inquiring sick people about their dietary habits. Both types of studies cannot give an answer to the question whether rice causes cancer or not. In ecological studies of this sort there is always the possibility of finding a correlation without causality, while studying a group of sick people disregards the number of healthy individuals that eat rice. The correct way to examine this would be to perform a well-controlled clinical trial.

5. Addition of talc to rice is now prohibited in several countries, including the US. In any case, rinsing the rice with water removes any traces of talc. As for asbestos, it can be found in trace amounts in improperly produced talc. Of course such trace amounts should not be taken lightly, but then again, if there is no talc in the rice then there is no asbestos.

6. This study was performed in mice and the conclusion was that rice can affect the structure of the stomach of mice. Does this necessarily reflect its effect in humans? Certainly not. The dietary differences between humans and mice are so great, that no such comparison can really be made. The only way to check this would be in clinical trials, or at least to examine the effect in primates. Moreover, it is quite possible that a rice-rich diet would have an effect that would be "overshadowed" by the effect of our diet lacking other important food groups. All in all, the mice studies might be a preliminary indication for a certain phenomenon, but certainly not for an unambiguous conclusion such as the one stated above.

7. This study presents a case in which three children were hospitalized for malnutrition caused by a diet that was poor in protein but rich in rice milk.

8. Once again, these are case studies about two individuals who were exposed to rice flour and became ill with inflammation. This is not an epidemiological study, not even an ecological one, but only two case reports.

9. And again, only three reported cases.

10. This study compared the prevalence of intestinal inflammation between groups of children allergic to rice, cow's milk or soy milk. The results indicated that rice allergies are frequently accompanied by sensitivity to cow’s milk and soy milk. Since there were very few participants in this study, no conclusions can be made about the general population.

You should also note that these studies were mostly published in small, specific niche journals with low scientific standards (not in all cases). Such journals usually tend to publish "scientific scoops" – articles with far-reaching conclusions based on weak data of low quality. Usually, when a scientist makes a big and important discovery it will be published in a leading journal. If a supposedly important discovery is published in a low profile journal, there is usually a good reason for it… Conspiracy-advocating scientists usually base their theories on large numbers of such articles (much like I did) and publish any "finding" that supports their theory even if it is only remotely related. So for them quantity definitely beats quality. A thorough read through each article reveals how ridiculous the conclusions usually are. But then again, who really wants to read the complete article when it is so nicely summarized in the title and the abstract section (usually in a distorted, misleading fashion).

In summary, bombastic headlines appear in the news on an almost daily basis, and the Internet will always be full of conspiracy theory-advocating sites, with special emphasis on medicine and food. When you stumble upon such an article, my first advice would be to be skeptical. Never accept all you are told as invariable truth. Second, always check whether the sources are credible: whether they were published in serious journals and whether the conclusions of the scientists are properly conveyed by the reporter or the blogger. Search for more information on the subject. When a scandal is exposed it is usually carefully inspected by skeptical bloggers who post their findings in their blogs. However, this is another potential source for distortion, so be aware. And of course, you are always invited to contact the team of writers on Davidson Online and we will do our best to provide you with reliable answers.

Erez Garty
Department of Biological Chemistry
Weizmann Institute of Science
 
A note to the reader
If you find these explanations insufficiently clear or if you have further questions on this topic, please write about this in our forum, and we will relate to your comments. Your suggestions and constructive criticism are always welcome.
 
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