- Foods made with rice syrup can contain high amounts of arsenic.
- How much arsenic is too much is still being debated, although the risk is greatest for babies.
- Food is emerging as a major source of arsenic exposure, especially for young children.
As virtuous as you might feel when you choose organic foods sweetened with brown rice syrup instead of high-fructose corn syrup, you might actually be making a potentially toxic decision.
Infant formulas, cereal bars and other foods made with organic brown rice syrup are loaded with arsenic, found a new study. And while an occasional rice-sweetened energy bar probably won't make much of a difference to your health, potential risks are greatest for babies, people with gluten intolerance and others who eat rice-heavy diets.
The findings suggest the need for regulations on arsenic in food, which so far, the United States Food and Drug Administration does not do.
"Here is just another food type that no one would consider would contain arsenic, and yet it does," said Brian Jackson, an environmental chemist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. "We really have no guidelines on what maximum levels should be for arsenic in food. Maybe it's time this was considered."
Arsenic, which is naturally ubiquitous in the environment and also a result of human activities, is a known carcinogen that, with enough daily exposure over years or decades, can also cause circulatory problems, type 2 diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease, among other ills.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates exposure to the mineral, but only through public supplies of drinking water, which cannot contain more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.
Only in the last couple of years have scientists realized that food, too, often contains arsenic. Studies have found the highest levels in fruit juices, rice and rice products, including crackers, rice milk and cereals made for both adults and babies.
At the supermarket one day, Jackson noticed two types of organic infant formulas that his team hadn't yet tested in an ongoing study of arsenic in formulas, which had so far turned up only low levels. Results for both turned up levels measuring 20 to 30 times higher than previously tested varieties, and a look at their labels revealed the use of organic brown rice syrup in place of high-fructose corn syrup or other sources of sugar.
To follow up, Jackson and colleagues measured arsenic levels in 17 kinds of infant formula, 29 cereal bars, and three energy shots made for athletes, all bought from local supermarkets.