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Just finished News of the World: A Novel by Paulette Jiles. One of my book-reading friends said this is one of the best books she’s ever read in her life. That kind of praise required me to read it and I just LOVED it. It’s about an old man (a widower), who was a former military captain, during the 1800s, who goes from town to town to read out loud the current news of the world (yes, there WAS such a job.) Newspapers didn’t make it to small towns back then. By chance he’s asked to take a 10-year old girl to East Texas to reunite with relatives. The child had been captured by an Indian tribe as a baby (her parents were killed in the raid), raised by the Kiowa and as was often the case of such children, she wants nothing to do with leaving. So the “hero” in this story has his hands full. And yet, they learn to trust each other on the journey. Reaching the destination, there are lots of complications (of course!). This book is truly a wonderful read – I didn’t want it to end. The author has a gift of description and the severe dangers and difficulties of a old west horse and wagon journey. The relationship is tender. Now I’ve got to investigate the author’s other books, of which there are many.

Winter Journey by Diane Armstrong. Have you ever read about forensic dentistry? I sure had not, so I found it fascinating reading. It’s a debut novel for the author, and what a story. Halina, an Australian, with Polish roots, specializes in this obscure profession as a forensic dentist, and is asked to go to Poland, to help identify bone (and tooth) fragments, to put to rest a sad event in the story of this small town, when many, many people (Jews) were murdered. Was it the Nazis? Or was it the local townspeople who disliked the Jews. What a tangled web of intrigue, including Halina’s own mysterious past. I really enjoyed the read. The author does a great job of developing the characters (which I always like). This is no light read if you consider the subject matter, although it IS a novel (but based on fact). Nor is it a spy thriller – it’s more just an historical novel with lots of interesting people throughout. There’s a romance thrown in too, and a whole lot of angst about the discoveries found in the mass grave. But, the subject expanded my knowledge about forensics.

The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece by Jonathan Harr. I just LOVED this book. I’ve never been much of a fan of Caravaggio’s paintings, although I’ve seen plenty of them (many are extremely large) in museums around the world. His paintings were dark, often with dark subjects. But as with many of the old masters, occasionally some obscure work surfaces, perhaps credited to another artist, even, that turns out to be one done by “the” master. In this case, Caravaggio. Although this book is written as a novel (with dialogue, etc.) it’s historical through and through. It begins with two young women art scholars, in Italy, who are asked to do a research project. One thing leads to another, and to another. All true.  If you enjoy books about art – I learned some things about the paint and the canvases of the time – you’ll be intrigued as I was.

Eye On the Struggle: Ethel Payne, the First Lady of the Black Press, by James, McGrath Morris. Each year my AAUW book club reads something related to Black History Month. This is a biography of a woman you’ve probably never heard of, Ethel Payne, and about her life-long journey in journalism, struggling to keep her head above water financially, but staying true to her purposes of telling the truth about the black stories and black racism of the day. Sometimes biographies aren’t all that riveting, but I found this one to be so, and I savored each new chapter. We had a really good discussion of the book, and the ups and downs of Payne’s life, especially during her years as a Washington reporter. You’ll not be sorry to have spent the time reading this book. It’s well-written, as well. I was thrilled when the author, Morris, left a message here on my blog, thanking me (and my group) for reading his book.

H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. This one has been on the best seller list. It’s a memoir about a woman who takes on a personal challenge of taming a wild hawk. Prior to reading this book, I knew next to nothing about the entire subject of hawking, or taming any of the big, wild birds. The book is equally about the writer’s inner journey. She’s a consummate writer, and every page was a joy of words, for me. My only problem is my own – I found it hard, the more time that went by, and the more time the writer spent trying to tame this bird, to scream out “let the bird go.” Perhaps it’s because I spent time in Africa in 2015, seeing animals in the wild, that I felt more for the bird than I did with the writer’s discontent with herself and the taming process. Little did I know what a hard job it is to tame a hawk. I actually didn’t finish the book. It was a book club read, and highly recommended by several of our members. And I ended up not being able to attend the meeting as I had a cold. So perhaps there is some great ending to it that would have made me feel better. I haven’t gone to the end to find out. I just had to stop reading it. But I’m not NOT recommending it. If nothing else, read it for Macdonald’s sublime proficiency with words.

Also read George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring That Saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Dan Yaeger. Here’s what it says on amazon: When George Washington beat a hasty retreat from New York City in August 1776, many thought the American Revolution might soon be over. Instead, Washington rallied—thanks in large part to a little-known, top-secret group called the Culper Spy Ring. He realized that he couldn’t defeat the British with military might, so he recruited a sophisticated and deeply secretive intelligence network to infiltrate New York. I won’t exactly call this book a riveting read, but it was interesting. Relating facts that few people knew about, this Culper Spy Ring. It’s a little chunk of American history researched in depth by the authors. An interesting read.

Also read The Little Paris Bookshop: A Novel by Nina George. If you’re an avid reader, you probably have the same kind of longing as I do for a quaint, independently owned bookstore right around the corner. So few exist anymore. This novel is about a very unusual book store, and book store owner. In Paris. On a boat/barge. It’s not a typical book store, and the writer takes you on a journey of discovery about (likely) her own lifetime of book reading. You’ll learn all about a variety of existing books and why they’re a good read. But it’s all cloaked in a story about this book store and the owner. And the customers. Very fun. I’m reviewing it for one of my book clubs next month.

Tasting Spoons

My blog's namesake - small, old and some very dented engraved silver plated tea spoons that belonged to my mother-in-law, and I use them to taste my food as I'm cooking.

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Posted in Essays, on October 5th, 2012.

risotto_sous_vide

We were on our recent trip, and in a hotel where we had a TV. I’d flipped on Good Morning America, I think it was. And they explained in a very short blurb that rice contains arsenic. More than we’d ever thought. And more than we should be eating. That was about it. A week later, I mentioned it to my cousin Gary, who consumes a lot of rice and rice products (because he’s gluten intolerant). His jaw dropped. Really? he said. Yup, really, but I didn’t have much detail.

Once home I found what was probably the genesis of the news item – an article in Consumer Reports. It’s in the November 2012 issue which you can read here. I’ll give you a synopsis. And if you read nothing more than this: the scientists say we should not consume more than 2 portions of rice per week. A portion is 1/2 cup for an adult. Or 1 full cup a week. And that’s a combination of all rice products. The level of arsenic varies greatly by type and by brand. Inorganic arsenic is known as a carcinogen. Bad news. And particularly worrisome are rice-based baby cereals. They’re not the worst, but then infants don’t eat much quantity of any cereal. Down at the bottom of this post I’ll give you some bullet points with recommendations.

So, here’s what happened . . . back in January Consumer Reports published an article about the level of arsenic in apple and grape juices. That was the original arsenic eye-opener. The folks at CR thought maybe they should do some more scientific study about arsenic in other foods. They chose rice, and they tested over 200 brands of rice products (everything from common white rice to rice syrups, rice cereals, baby food, rice pasta and rice crackers – my cousin is gluten intolerant, so he eats a lot of rice crackers and other rice-based products – hence my concern for him).

The scientific part of it – there are two types of arsenic that we consume in food – inorganic and organic. It’s the inorganic we need to be more concerned about, although the FDA and EPA both say there are no safe arsenic levels. Period. Scientists think the arsenic has increased because of insecticides that have been used in the past hundred years. Here’s what the article says:

. . . The U.S. is the world’s leading user of arsenic and since 1910 about 1.6 million tons have been used for agricultural and industrial purposes, about half of it only since the mid-1960’s. Residues from the decades of use of lead arsenate insecticides linger in agricultural soil today, even though their use was banned in the 1980’s. Other arsenical ingredients in animal feed to prevent disease and promote growth are still permitted. Moreover, fertilizer made from poultry waste can contaminate crops with inorganic arsenic.

I’m sorry folks. I’m just stunned. Ashamed. Angry. Angry that the gosh-darned profit engines of food commerce will, at every juncture, choose to promote growth and therefore profit (in vegetables and grains and in meat production) to the possible detriment of our health. Doesn’t it seem logical that arsenic in anything, at any level, is not good for us? For gosh sakes, it’s a POISON! So even though arsenic-enhanced insecticide was banned in the 1980’s, the ground still contains it and it passes through into crops grown in that same soil. AND, animal feed still does contain arsenic and it’s allowed. How come? And of course, chicken farmers have all that chicken poop they consider a product as well, and it’s made into fertilizer, yet IT contains higher levels of arsenic. It goes back into the ground for our food.

I also don’t like GM (genetically modified) food. I wrote up an essay about genetically modified seed a couple of years ago about Monsanto, and the genetically modified corn and canola seed that is almost everything we eat now. Monsanto is a weasel of a company. And they wield great power. Scary power. Here in California, we are voting on a proposition next month about whether food labeling must state if something is a GM product. Obviously I’m voting for that. Most people, when questioned, probably would choose not to eat GM corn; yet it’s very pervasive and I’m guilty of not asking the corner farmstand employee whether the corn I buy there is GM or not. The produce man in my market has no idea. He doesn’t care. He just preps the produce. However, more people are paying attention (I think and hope) to where food products come from. Last night my DH and I were at Costco and he was looking at a frozen case of shellfish. I walked right on by because in past trips I know the shrimp came from Vietnam. I’m not buying shrimp from Vietnam. Articles I’ve read tell me for health’s sake, I should buy only shrimp manufactured in U.S. waters. I’m all for that. But they’re very hard to find! The lobster in the case was from Brazil. I don’t know anything about lobster farming or trapping in Brazil. They were beautiful things – and expensive I might add. We bought none of them. We did buy fresh halibut from Alaska, though. New recipe coming up soon.

I’m sorry, I got sidetracked there. We’re talking about arsenic in rice. I’ll get back to that now. The bottom line is that in an extensive study CR did, people who ate more rice – logically – tested high for arsenic in their systems. Arsenic is known to cause a variety of cancers (lung and bladder first and foremost). Organic arsenic, so far as scientists know, is not harmful. We eat it in several types of seafood, actually, so in the tests, they eliminated any results from people who had eaten seafood within 24 hours of the urine test used. Over a lifetime of eating rice (and in many countries eating rice is a 3-times a day national pastime) this could cause significant cancers.

RECOMMENDATIONS:

  1. If you’re pregnant, cut way, way down on rice in any way, shape or form. Adults, it is suggested, should eat no more than 2 servings (so about 1 cup total) per WEEK. That includes rice cakes, rice cereals, rice drinks, rice pasta, rice cakes.
  2. Consumer Reports recommends you find out about your drinking water – if you’re on public water, you’re okay generally. Only if you use a well water or other sources, should you have the water tested for arsenic.
  3. Change the way you cook rice – rinse it thoroughly in any case and discard that drained water. Use more water than called for when you cook it (that removes more of the arsenic to that cooking water that you’d also discard). They recommend using 6 cups of water for every cup of rice. That will remove about 30% of the arsenic in the rice. Yes, you wash away some of the nutrients, but it’s safer for eating.
  4. Don’t eat brown rice – it has higher doses of arsenic than white rice – because much of the arsenic is held in the outer layers of the grain. Remember, rice is grown in a specialized pond and the rice leeches stuff from the underlying soil.

Consumer Reports has made a bunch of recommendations to the USDA, FDA and EPA, including: (1) the industry needs to set a standard for arsenic in rice [there is none at this time]; (2) producers should develop rice types that don’t “take up” so much arsenic from the water/soil, and then use the one(s) that perform the best; (3) the EPA should phase out all pesticides [period] that contain arsenic; (4) the USDA and EPA should end the use of arsenic-laden fertilizers and manure; (5) the FDA should ban the feeding of arsenic-containing drugs and animal byproducts to animals. To learn more about this part, go to the main article (at the bottom). Of course, the U.S. Rice Federation is vehemently arguing that arsenic in our rice is way overblown as a health risk. I’m sorry, ANY arsenic in my rice is too much.

If you go to the article, you can review the entire chart about the rice products they tested. I’m going to give you a short list, though, of the products that were high (bad) that you should, for now, avoid (in my opinion anyway). And I’ll give you the names of the rice products that were better than others. No rice products were free of arsenic. If you eat any rice products at all, you’re ingesting arsenic. No way around it. Rice raised in the American South has higher levels than others – probably because of the years and years of insecticides used on that same land. It appears that rice from Indian and Thailand have lower levels, but CR didn’t test some of the more obscure brands I see in my local Indian store.

Lundberg, the small company here in California, that raises a lot of rice, has, generally, lower levels of arsenic in their products. There was one exception. But their company (and the CEO, Grant Lundberg) is investing lots of resources to test all of their products more extensively. Good for them. They may be one of the first on the bandwagon to improve the problem.

Here’s a list from Consumer Reports with THE BAD ONES – higher incidences of arsenic in their products (listed in rice type order, then alpha order, not the level of arsenic). Some had lower ratings, but CR used 3 tests of each product from different packages and some showed varying results. The ones in red had the highest levels: RICE: 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods); Cajun Country Enriched Long Grain; Cajun Country Popcorn Long Grain; Canilla Extra Long Grain Enriched; Carolina Whole Grain Brown; Della Basmati Brown; Doguet’s Brown; Goya Enriched Medium Grain; Great Value Brown (Walmart); Jazzmen Louisiana Aromatic Brown (this one had the highest number of all); Lundberg Short Grain Brown; Martin Long Grain Brown; Texas Best Organics Long Grain Brown; Uncle Ben’s Original Enriched Parboiled Long Grain; and Uncle Ben’s Whole Grain Brown. INFANT CEREAL: None exceeded 5 micrograms per liter, but of the 4 types listed, two were higher – Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Rice and Gerber Rice. HOT CEREAL: Bob’s Red Mill Brown Rice Farina Creamy White. READY-TO-EAT CEREAL: Barbara’s Brown Rice Crisps. RICE CAKES & CRACKERS: Suzie’s Whole Grain Thin Cakes. RICE PASTA: DeBoles Rice Spirals, Tinkyada Brown Rice Pasta Shells and Trader Joe’s Organic Brown Rice Fusilli. RICE FLOUR: Arrowhead Mills Organic Brown. RICE DRINKS: neither tested brands exceeded the arsenic levels for concern. RICE SYRUP: Lundberg Sweet Dreams Eco-Farmed Brown and their Organic Brown (both). RICE VINEGAR: only one brand tested and it is very low.

Now, here’s the list of THE BETTER ONES – lower incidence of arsenic, not necessarily healthy levels, but still beneath the 5 micrograms considered a level of concern: RICE: there are about 20+ brands listed – I’m only listing the ones that had the lowest incidence – seek them out if you can – Archer Farms Organic Basmati (Target – it’s from India), 365 Everyday Value Organic Indian Basmati White (Whole Foods, from India), Archer Farms Organic Jasmine (Target, and it’s from Thailand), Lundberg California White Basmati (California), Martin Long Grain Enriched (Missouri), and Trader Joe’s White Basmati (India). INFANT CEREAL: Beech-Nut Homestyle Rice and Gerber SmartNourish Organic Brown Rice. HOT CEREAL: Bob’s Red Mill Organicv Brown Rice Farina Creamy Rice and Cream of Rice. READY-TO-EAT CEREAL: Arrowhead Mills Organic Sweetened Rice Flakes, General Mills Rice Chex Gluten Free, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies, Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Gluten Free and Trader Joe’s Crisp Rice Cereal. RICE CAKES & CRACKERS: Asian Gourmet Plain Rice Crackers, Edward & Sons Organic Brown Rice Snaps Unsalted Plain Rice Cracker, Lundberg Brown Rice Organic Rice Cake, Quaker Lightly Salted Rice Cake. RICE PASTA: Annie Chun’s Maifun Rice Noodles. RICE FLOUR: Arrowhead Mills Organic White and Goya Enriched. RICE DRINKS: Pacific Rice Low Fat Plain Beverage and Rice Dream Classic Original Rice Drink. RICE VINEGAR: Asian Gourmet Plain.

So what’s all that say . . . well, that we shouldn’t eat as much rice as we thought we could. Eat white rice. Be extra careful about feeding rice products to infants. Pregnant moms should be extra careful too.

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  1. Toffeeapple

    said on October 5th, 2012:

    That is a very thought provoking post Carolyn. I rarely eat rice but wonder if my Asian and Oriental friends are making themselves ill. It does seem to be mostly rice grown in the US that was investigated and I hope that it doesn’t apply to rice from all parts of the world.

    They studied rice from a few producers from Thailand and India – both had some arsenic, but not the levels of U.S. grown rice. I would suppose that the use of the insecticides was more limited in those countries. The ones they studied (the foreign ones) were imported to the U.S. and are readily available here. More obscure imported rice, apparently, wasn’t studied. . . . carolyn T

  2. ron kaminski

    said on December 25th, 2012:

    Uncle Ben’s ready to serve brown rice. my wife eats a cup {125g} per serving. she has collites {hope that’s spelled correct} what should she do? other suggestions? thank you.

    Based on the fact that Uncle Ben’s (converted white) rice has a rather high amount of arsenic, I’d suppose the brown does also. Brown rice in general had more arsenic because more of the pesticide resides in the brown shell of the rice kernel. Surely she should try one of the very low arsenic rices (Trader Joe’s Basmati imported from India was very, very low in arsenic) and see if her colitis improves. But, I’m not a doctor or even pretend to be! There is also a new product out – called Miracle Noodles (made from soy) and they have an orzo variety that looks very much like rice. It doesn’t have the crunch of rice, but it’s good, if prepared properly. Do read my blog post about the Shirataki noodles for suggestions on how it must be prepared. It has no arsenic, obviously! If you’re interested go online and search for “miracle noodles” and you’ll find them. . . carolyn t

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