When researchers at Dartmouth College recently tested a variety of infant formulas, cereal bars and other foods, they found alarming levels of arsenic in many of the products. The even more surprising part? The source was organic rice syrup.
The report was released today by the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, and it contained surprising information about the prevalence of arsenic in infant food products, gluten-free products and organic products.
Researchers reported that one organic infant formula contained arsenic levels that were six times higher than legal arsenic levels for drinking water.
What’s especially disturbing about these high levels in formula and infant cereal bars is that babies can safely consume much lower levels of toxins like arsenic.
Rice syrup was also frequently the primary ingredient in formulas and cereal bars. It was the first ingredient listed in 2 of the 17 infant formulas, and was the primary ingredient in 22 of the 29 cereal bars.
Rice syrup is frequently used in place of high fructose corn syrup and in gluten-free products. Even organic rice syrup was found to be high in arsenic, since the rice absorbs arsenic found naturally in the soil.
The researchers concluded that there was “an urgent need” for federal regulations of arsenic levels in foods.
Why is rice syrup high in arsenic?
Rice is particularly adept at absorbing pollutants in the soil and bringing it up into the rest of the plant. Arsenic levels of U.S. soils have risen because of coal-burning power plants, arsenic treated lumber (now banned in the US but still widely present as mulch) and the conversion of farmland in the south from cotton crops (once highly treated with arsenic in pesticide) to rice crops.
Consumer Reports explains:
When the rice initially planted in some of those former cotton fields produced little grain due to that pesticide residue, farmers solved that problem by breeding a type of rice specifically designed to produce high yields on arsenic-contaminated soil, according to Andrew Meharg, a professor of biogeochemistry at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. His research has shown that U.S. rice has among the highest average levels in the world of inorganic arsenic, which is known to cause skin, lung and bladder cancer in humans.
What can you do to avoid arsenic in your family’s food?
- Aim to serve mostly whole foods instead of packaged foods.
- Check ingredients for rice syrup and look for products that don’t list it near the top of ingredients.
- If you purchase a lot of gluten-free products, pay special attention to ingredients and aim for diversity.
- Limit your family’s consumption of apple and grape juices, which have also been found to be high in arsenic (especially from other countries like China, who still use arsenic as pesticide).
- If you have a private well for water, test it for arsenic levels. You can find information here on testing and treating your water for arsenic.
- Limit the amount of rice cereal you feed your baby. Again, aim for diversity in food choices.
- Do not serve rice milk as a primary beverage for your children.
- Purchase other types of rice such as Basmati rice from countries that have tested much lower arsenic levels than the U.S., such as Nepal, India and Pakistan. Rice from Egypt was found to have the lowest arsenic levels of those tested. Even California rice was found to be 41% lower in arsenic levels than the south-central United States.
- Purchase organic chicken, since federal standards prohibit using chicken feed containing arsenic. Conventional chicken is often high in arsenic.
- Breastfeed your baby instead of offering infant formula.
- Write your legislators and ask for federal limits of arsenic in foods, such as the proposed legislation limiting arsenic levels in fruit juices.