What’s this about arsenic in baby formula?

If you followed the popular press last week you received a large dose of arsenic-laced fear about infant formula. Here’s the lowdown: a group of scientists at Dartmouth bought products containing organic brown rice syrup and tested them for arsenic. Their premise was that since arsenic is known to concentrate in brown rice, maybe brown rice syrup, used as an alternative sweetener in organic foods, might also contain arsenic. And they were right. But how scared should we be?

First and foremost, inorganic arsenic is a baddie and should not be in any foods. It is a known carcinogen (lung, skin, bladder, liver). Acute high-dose poisonings can cause severe symptoms that lead to death. Chronic low-dose exposure can cause rashes, numbness, problems with kidney and liver functions, and birth defects. Organic arsenic, on the other hand, is much less toxic and is often found in shellfish. We don’t usually worry about organic arsenic exposure.

Inorganic arsenic occurs naturally in ground water and soil, and varies by geographic location. Brown rice grown in soil that contains high arsenic or irrigated with arsenic-contaminated ground water takes up the arsenic into its outer husk. When the husk is removed to make refined rice, the arsenic is removed also. But those of us who enjoy brown rice are definitely ingesting a teeny bit of arsenic with each bite. Foods that are sweetened with brown rice syrup, including types labeled “organic,” also contain arsenic. In the study that appeared in the news last week, the authors tested 3 types of organic brown rice syrup, 17 brands of baby formula – 2 of which listed organic brown rice syrup (OBRS) in their ingredients, 29 brands of cereal bars – 13 of which listed OBRS, and 3 flavors of performance gels.

All of the brown rice syrups and products listing OBRS as ingredients contained arsenic. The soy based baby formula that listed OBRS as an ingredient contains enough arsenic that if ingested by a typical growing infant, would result in arsenic ingestion that is 6 times the EPA limit. Not good.

The US does not have a limit for arsenic levels in food, so this study compared the arsenic levels found in their tests to the limit used in China – the only country which regulates arsenic in foods. Most of the cereal bars and performance gels contained levels of arsenic below the Chinese limit, but some of the brown rice syrups were above the Chinese limit for arsenic.

My recommendations regarding arsenic in brown rice:

1.    If you feed your infant a type of formula that lists organic brown rice syrup as an ingredient, consider switching formulas.
2.    If you eat lots of brown rice like many vegetarians and gluten-sensitive folks do – keep eating it! Brown rice is a healthy alternative to processed grains. The amount of arsenic is very small and the health benefits outweigh the risks, in my opinion. Remember that white rice does not contain arsenic so you can eat it liberally without having to worry about arsenic.
3.    Avoid products containing brown rice syrup as a sweetener.
4.    Advocate for the FDA (US Food and Drug Administration) to regulate arsenic in foods.

Resources:
EPA’s web page on arsenic in brown rice:http://www.epa.gov/ncer/events/news/2012/02_16_12_feature.html

Link to the Dartmouth study:
http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info%3Adoi%2F10.1289%2Fehp.1104619

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