Arsenic has been found in some foods that use organic brown rice syrup as a sweetener, including infant formula and cereal bars, according to a new study by researchers at Dartmouth College. The majority of the detected arsenic, a contaminant often found in rice, was the type that is known to be a human carcinogen.
Important findings of the study, published online Feb. 16 by the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives include:
The Dartmouth researchers conclude that given the increasing prevalence of hidden arsenic in food, “there is an urgent need for regulatory limits on As (arsenic) in food.” They also cited Consumer Reports’ recent investigation, which found elevated levels of arsenic in apple and grape juices, as further evidence that U.S. consumers are being exposed to worrisome concentrations of arsenic in foods and beverages. Legislation was introduced Feb. 8 in the U.S. House of Representatives calling on the Food and Drug Administration to establish standards for both arsenic and lead in fruit juices; there are currently no federal thresholds for arsenic in juices or most foods.
As we previously reported, other research from Dartmouth published online in late 2011 suggested that many people in the U.S. may be exposed to potentially harmful levels of arsenic through consumption of rice. Studies by other researchers also have shown that rice can be a significant source of dietary exposure to this toxin. Rice is among the plants that are unusually efficient at taking up arsenic from the soil, and much of the rice produced in the U.S. is grown on land formerly used to grow cotton, where arsenical pesticides were widely used for many years, just as they were in orchards and vineyards.
“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,” says Brian Jackson, Ph.D., lead author of this latest study and a member of Dartmouth’s Superfund Research Program, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. He noted, however, that infant formulas containing added rice starch did not appear to be a concern in terms of elevated arsenic.
Jackson also pointed out that brown rice syrup is likely to have higher arsenic concentrations than other sweeteners whether the rice is grown organically or not. “That's because the rice takes up natural arsenic from the soil and when the rice is used to make brown rice syrup, much of that arsenic ends up there,” he said. “We focused on organic brown rice syrup because this seems to be a sweetener of choice for some organic food products.”
Among advice Jackson provided when we asked him what consumers currently can do to limit their dietary exposure to arsenic via rice in products Dartmouth researchers have tested: