Researchers at Dartmouth College have found startlingly high levels of arsenic in brown rice and brown rice syrup-based products such as organic baby formula and cereal bars. The researchers tested 17 infant formulas, 29 cereal bars and 3 energy shots and reported their findings in Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.
The Dartmouth study comes just months after Care2′s Jaelithe Judy reported that independent product safety tests showed the level of arsenic in a sample of Mott’s brand apple juice to be more than five times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s legal limit for safe drinking water.
Brown rice syrup has become an increasingly popular replacement for hugh fructose corn syrup, and along with other products such as brown rice flour, it’s been a godsend for people on gluten-free diets.
But just how does arsenic find its way into rice? Put simply, rice soaks up arsenic from soil and groundwater. And because arsenic is chemically similar to silica, an element rice needs, it soaks it up with ease.
Arsenic does occur naturally in soil and groundwater, and people are exposed to trace amounts of natural arsenic on a regular basis with no documented ill effect. But arsenic has also been widely used as a pesticide and animal poison, contaminating groundwater and soil in the process. The danger comes with long term, high exposure to inorganic arsenic. This kind of exposure to arsenic has been linked by the World Health Organization and others to cancer and heart disease, as well as developmental delays in children. Animal studies have demonstrated a link to birth defects in mammals.
According to the Dartmouth study, one infant formula tested with organic brown rice syrup as the primary ingredient had arsenic concentrations of up to six times the EPA limit of 10 parts per billion for safe drinking water. NPR and others have reported the formula that tested high for arsenic in a soy-based formula made by Nature’s One. Organic brown rice syrup is the primary ingredient. Nature’s One posted a statement following the report and said their products “meet all safety requirements of the Federal Food and Drug Administration”.
Cereal bars that contained rice products had arsenic levels ranging from 23 to 128 parts per billion. There are no federal limits for arsenic levels in food, so it’s hard to pin an equivalent, but the arsenic levels in the formula were higher than the WHO’s “maximum tolerable daily intake” standard for babies.
“There’s much less research in arsenic and food,” Brandon Pierce, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Chicago told NPR’s The Salt blog. “The food studies researchers are saying these levels are potentially harmful, and industry is saying no.”
The Dartmouth researchers are calling for regulatory limits on arsenic in food. In a statement reacting to the Dartmouth study, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says it has been sampling rice and rice products since October, and will release the results of its study this spring.
“For people who just occasionally eat cereal bars, I don’t see a problem,” Brian Jackson, the analytical chemist who led the study told NPR. “But for the toddler formula, until we know what a safe arsenic concentration is, I’d recommend discontinuing that formula,” Jackson also told The Salt that he recommends people on gluten-free diets diversify their grains.
Photo credit: Rob Qid via flickr