Researchers have found higher levels of inorganic Arsenic in baby formula, cereal bars and other foods that use organic brown rice syrup as a sweetener.
Rice is among the plants that are efficient in taking up arsenic from the soil, environmental chemist Brian Jackson of Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H., and his co-authors said in Thursday's issue of the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. Long-term exposure to extremely high levels of inorganic arsenic can increase the risk of lung, liver and bladder cancer as well as miscarriage and infertility.
The paper found arsenic in two of 17 infant formulas tested. One sample had an arsenic concentration six times the federal limit for arsenic allowable in bottled water or drinking water. In infants, such a level could be toxic because they consume more per pound of body weight compared to adults. Among 29 cereal bars tested, those containing syrup or other forms of rice had arsenic levels two to 12 times higher than the allowable limit.
ABC News conducted an online search for baby formula with organic brown rice syrup as the primary ingredient and found two products, Baby's Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby's Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula, both made by Nature's One.
Inorganic arsenic is considered much more toxic than organic arsenic, Jackson said. Brown rice is usually higher in total arsenic and inorganic arsenic than white rice because the outer layer that's removed in white rice contains the inorganic arsenic. However, another form of arsenic can be found inside the grain of both white and brown rice.
“There are currently no U.S. regulations applicable to arsenic in food,” the study's authors concluded. “Our findings suggest that the organic brown rice syrup products we evaluated may introduce significant concentrations of inorganic arsenic to an individual's diet. Thus, we conclude that there is an urgent need for regulatory limits on arsenic in food.”
Additionally Health Canada does not set limits on arsenic levels in food. “I wouldn't say it is unsafe,” Dr. Karl Kabasele said of organic brown rice syrup. Canada's limit for drinking water is 10 parts per billion, which leaves a safety margin before toxic effects are known to occur in humans, Kabasele said.
There is evidence that children exposed to extremely high levels of arsenic in groundwater in Bangladesh had their growth and IQ affected, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That points to how consuming large amounts over a long period could be problematic, Kabasele said. He suggested concerned parents should not feed their babies only foods that are sweetened with rice syrup.
Health Canada said it conducts regular surveillance and the Canadian Food Inspection Agency monitors foods and beverages. “If arsenic is detected at levels above those considered typical, Health Canada conducts a health-risk assessment to determine if the arsenic is present in a concentration that would be unsafe to human health. If a safety concern is identified, appropriate action is taken to ensure the health and safety of Canadians is protected,” the department said in an email to CBC News. Those actions include recalls, detaining products and establishing maximum limits.
The Food and Drug Administration has been sampling and testing a variety of “more conventional” rice products, including rice crackers and rice cereals, “to evaluate what the risk is and what the levels are in these products” said Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. Depending on what the testing reveals, she said there was “a possibility” that the agency would set a threshold for arsenic levels in rice. The FDA previously set a “level of concern” of 23 parts per billion of arsenic for fruit juices, the only other food to have such a designated level. The EPA standard for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb.
“The bottom line is this shows there's a need for FDA to figure out some limits on this and put that out there,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. She said FDA needs to take a broader approach toward arsenic in what we eat, rather than going “food by food.”