Oh, Baby: There May Be Arsenic in Your Formula

A new study suggests that organic brown-rice syrup — a sweetener used in many organic and gluten-free foods, including baby formula — may be a hidden source of arsenic

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No surprise here: arsenic is not good for you. In high doses, of course, it’s a deadly poison, but even at lower levels, exposure to arsenic can raise the risks of cancer and heart disease. It’s especially dangerous for young children in whom chronic arsenic exposure has been linked to lower IQ and poor intellectual function. And because arsenic can occur naturally in groundwater — where it can poison people via drinking water or through food grown in arsenic-contaminated soil — it can be difficult to avoid.

That’s why a new study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives indicating that organic brown-rice syrup — a sweetener used in many organic and gluten-free foods, including baby formula — can be a source of arsenic is so worrying. Researchers from Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School looked at foods that use organic brown-rice syrup and found evidence that some baby formulas, cereal bars and energy shots all contained levels of arsenic that were significantly higher than the 10 parts per billion (ppb) federal limit for drinking or bottled water.

Worst of all, despite the results, there are currently no U.S. regulatory limits for arsenic in food — which means there’s little to prevent consumers, and especially children, from being dosed with potentially harmful levels of the chemical. “In the absence of regulations for levels of arsenic in food, I would certainly advise parents who are concerned about their children’s exposure to arsenic not to feed them formula where brown-rice syrup is the main ingredient,” Brian Jackson, the lead author of the study, told Consumer Reports.

(MORE: Arsenic and Old Rice: Should We Worry About a Toxic Chemical in a Popular Food?)

Some of the findings of the study include:

  • Two of the 17 infant formulas tested listed brown-rice syrup as a main ingredient, and one had an arsenic concentration that was six times the federal limit on arsenic in water.
  • Twenty-two of the 29 cereal bars or energy bars tested had at least one of four rice products — organic brown-rice syrup, rice flour, rice grain or rice flakes — among the main ingredients. Those bars had arsenic levels ranging from 23 to 128 ppb, all well above the federal limit on water.
  • Tests of high-energy products known as “energy shots” showed that one of the three blocks contained 84 ppb of total arsenic, and the other two contained 171 ppb.

The reason brown-rice syrup was targeted for the research is that rice — which is grown in inundated soil — can be more easily contaminated by arsenic than other foods. (Indeed, this isn’t the first time arsenic has been found in rice products.) It also matters what kind of arsenic may be contaminating foods: organic or inorganic. Organic arsenic is usually seen as less harmful than inorganic arsenic, but it’s notable that most of the arsenic found in the bars and energy gels was inorganic, while the infant formula had mostly organic arsenic. It’s also notable that the infant formulas that used brown-rice syrup have a very low market share, so presumably few babies are being exposed to them.

For their part, rice growers contested the notion that their crop posed a risk to consumers:

“U.S. rice and rice products are safe to consume,” says Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, a spokesperson for the USA Rice Federation. “When discussing the content of arsenic in foods, it is essential to distinguish between organic and inorganic arsenic.”

“Most of the arsenic found in rice is organic arsenic, the benign kind, and the U.S. rice industry is working with U.S. regulatory officials as they look into this issue,” she says.

But even researchers who weren’t involved in the study caution parents to avoid formulas made using brown rice. Very young children and infants are at greater risk for arsenic poisoning because their small bodies mean they get a bigger exposure of the chemical.

The real lesson from the study is the need for some form of federal regulation of arsenic in food. That may be coming — the Food and Drug Administration is looking at the issue, and regulatory agencies in Britain and Europe are already on the way to setting limits. Legislation was introduced earlier this month in the House of Representatives to push the FDA. It’s long since time to act.

MORE: Arsenic in Apple Juice: A New Report Suggests Widespread Exposure