A study published Thursday in the research journal Environmental Health Perspectives has caused quite the stir after researchers from Dartmouth College found surprising levels of arsenic in two samples of organic infant formula and other foods containing organic brown rice syrup. Both formula samples contained organic brown rice syrup as the primary ingredient, and results showed that each contained inorganic arsenic concentrations at or above the current US drinking water standard and more than 20 times greater than the other 15 formulas tested which contained no organic brown rice syrup.
Inorganic arsenic has been classified as a human carcinogen by the EPA, and long-term exposure to drinking water high in inorganic arsenic has been associated with gastrointestinal issues and increased risk of various cancers (skin, liver, kidney, lung, and bladder). The EPA has set a limit for US drinking water of 10 parts per billion based on lifetime exposure, but the concern in this case is the possible effect on babies’ developing systems, even in a short period of time.
Foods containing organic brown rice syrup were chosen for this study as rice is a major source of dietary exposure to arsenic, and brown rice tends to have more of the inorganic, more toxic, form of arsenic since it accumulates in a layer that is generally removed during the polishing of white rice. The researchers suspected that the use of organic brown rice syrup as an alternative to high fructose corn syrup in organic foods was likely to introduce arsenic into these products.
The study did not name the two formulas containing high levels of arsenic; however, it did indicate that these were the only two infant formulas they were aware of that contained organic brown rice syrup. The Boston Globe has identified these products as Baby’s Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby’s Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula, both made by Nature’s One.
According to the study, the lots of dairy formula tested contained levels of inorganic arsenic at and just below the EPA’s drinking water standard, whereas the soy formula tested contained levels of inorganic arsenic exceeding the drinking water standard (see the graph on p18). The lead researcher in the study, Dr. Jackson, has indicated that these levels are not acutely toxic and parents should not be concerned about acute arsenic poisoning.
The company has responded on its website by indicating that their California-based supplier uses an independent lab to test arsenic levels in their organic brown rice syrup and as of yet has reported undetectable amounts of arsenic. For parents who rely on these formulas made by Nature’s One, the location of the supplier is notable. Much of the rice in the U.S. is produced in the south on land formerly used to grow cotton where arsenic-based pesticides were used heavily. That arsenic remains in the soil today (looong half-life), even after some of those fields were switched over to organic farming methods. Research has shown that rice grown in California, however, generally has much less arsenic – one study found organic brown rice from California to have the lowest levels of 134 varieties tested between California and Arkansas, the state where about half of U.S. rice is grown.
Why the formulas containing California-sourced rice syrup tested with high levels of inorganic arsenic in the Dartmouth study then remains to be explained. Nature’s One does highlight some concerns they have with the study, albeit a bit defensively, namely that the Dartmouth study does not use the World Health Organization’s preferred method of testing for arsenic in food nor the EPA-approved method for testing arsenic in drinking water. The company further highlights the margin for error cited in the Dartmouth study, stating that it is outside the range expected for a reliable scientific study. Nature’s One does not elaborate on its own testing procedures; however, it does plan to release updated testing results on its website soon.
Until then, the best thing parents can do is follow the advice of Dr. Alan Greene, well-respected pediatrician and board member at Healthy Child Healthy World:
- Rice should not be the primary source of calories for babies.
- Whenever practical, ensure that the rice they do get comes primarily from California and/or is adequately tested for arsenic (with technology at least able to detect 10 ppb).
- Avoid conventional rice imported from countries where arsenic exposure is a concern, (i.e. Bangladesh)
Similarly, for the rest of the family, I would suggest rice in moderation and paying attention to the source. One study suggested that one would have to eat more than 115 grams daily of high-arsenic rice to potentially reach or surpass the drinking water standard, so while the latest news is cause for some concern particularly in young children, it doesn’t seem there is need to panic.
Ultimately, the results of this study in conjunction with news late last year of arsenic in fruit juices, highlight the need for safety levels of arsenic in food and beverages. The FDA is currently looking into the issue after being pressured over arsenic in apple juice. According to Time, regulatory agencies in Britain and Europe are already on their way to setting limits, and legislation was introduced in the US House of Representatives earlier this month to push the FDA along.