Arsenic poisoning is probably the last thing on your mind when you’re feeding a baby or diving into a stir-fry dish. Scientists are now saying, though, that the issue needs to be on your radar, particularly when it comes to rice ingredients in baby food.
A December 2017 report from advocacy group Healthy Babies Bright Futures found that infant cereals with rice contain six times more arsenic than those made with other grains, like oatmeal or multi-grain. (1)
The findings come on the heels of an April 2016 study by researchers at Dartmouth College, who found that the inorganic arsenic levels in babies’ urine was much higher in those who ate rice-based cereals and snacks when compared to babies who didn’t eat these rice-containing foods. This is a big deal, because 80 percent of babies eat rice cereal during their first year of life. Previous studies suggest that exposure to arsenic early in life may lead to adverse developmental effects. (2)
Arsenic in rice isn’t the only arsenic exposure to be worried about, but it consistently tests high because rice plants absorb 10 times more arsenic than other grain plants. Let’s see what the other threats are.
Inorganic vs. Organic Arsenic
First, just a note on terminology. There are two types of arsenic:
Organic arsenic simply indicates that a carbon atom is part of the arsenic bond. Common sources include fish and crustaceans.
Inorganic arsenic is abundant in nature and without a carbon atom in the arsenic bond. This type is considered much more toxic to the human body. Unfortunately, it’s often found in rice and rice ingredients, apple juice, and other foods and drinks. These compounds are oftentimes found in manufactured items like pressure-treated wood, although pressure treated wood is more likely to contain nano-copper today. Both organic and inorganic forms are regularly discovered in soil and groundwater, as well as in many of the foods that we regularly eat. (4)
Arsenic Poisoning Threats
While the concept of low-level arsenic poisoning from rice sources is nothing new, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been slow to take action. In spring 2016, the government agency released a proposed limit for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. People consume the most rice relative to their weight when they are just 8 months old, thanks to the rise in popularity of of rice-based baby cereals and snacks.
Through a draft guidance to industry, the FDA is proposing a limit or “action level” of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. This is parallel to the level set by the European Commission (EC) for rice intended for the production of food for infants and young children. (The EC standard concerns the rice itself; the FDA’s proposed guidance sets a draft level for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.) FDA testing found that the majority of infant rice cereal currently on the market either meets, or is close to, the proposed action level.
The agency expects manufacturers can produce infant rice cereal that meet or are below the proposed limit with the use of good manufacturing practices, such as sourcing rice with lower inorganic arsenic levels. (5) Though the FDA made its initial proposal more than a year ago, it still hasn’t set a limit for arsenic in rice cereal. Meanwhile, the threat abounds.
Baby Food and Arsenic Threats
The study done by Healthy Babies Bright Futures tested 105 infant cereals made by nine different brands, which included rice and non-rice varieties, like those made from oatmeal, barley, quinoa, corn and more. Out of the 42 cereals that were made from rice, all but one contained more arsenic than the non-rice cereals. The average ppb of the rice cereals was 85, while the average for the other cereals was 14.
There was a small bit of good news: the 85 ppb average of arsenic levels for cereals tested in 2016-17 was actually down from 103 ppb average of cereals tested in 2013-14, meaning cereal makers are slowly making their own changes, even without the FDA regulations. However, when you compare the amount of arsenic still found in cereals to the much-lower levels of cereals made without rice, it’s extremely startling. And when you consider the health effects that arsenic poisoning can have, it’s even more frightening.
While acute arsenic poisoning leads to red blood cell destruction, convulsions, coma and sometimes death, chronic, low-dose exposure to inorganic arsenic has been linked to certain cancers, skin lesions, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes. (6)
5 Fast Facts About Arsenic Poisoning and Exposure
- In the general U.S. population, the main source of arsenic exposure is via ingestion of food containing arsenic. (7) Groundwater sometimes harbors arsenic, making it important for well users to get water tested every few years and find appropriate filtration systems if necessary.
- The National Toxicology Program’s Thirteenth Report on Carcinogens lists arsenic as a cancer-causing agent because it’s been shown to cause bladder, kidney, liver, lung and prostate cancers. (8, 9)
- Brown rice has about 80 percent more inorganic arsenic compared to white rice, but contains many more nutrients. For that reason, researchers don’t suggest switching completely to white rice, but using arsenic-reducing cooking tips found below.
- Consumer Reports testing found that basmati rice grown in California contained the lowest levels of arsenic; all types of rice, except sushi and quick-cooking rice, from Texas, Louisiana, and Arkansas contained the highest levels of inorganic arsenic in Consumer Reports testing. (10)
- Hyraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” a controversial form of natural gas extraction, may mobilize arsenic underground and in aquifers, potentially threatening groundwater supplies. (11)
Foods and Drinks Sometimes High in Arsenic
1. Dairy-Free and Gluten-Free Foods
As we now know, it’s not just rice, but rice ingredients in processed foods, too, that lead to unsafe exposures to arsenic. Aside from baby food, watch out for rice milk and gluten-free processed foods and sweeteners that use rice ingredients to replace wheat or dairy ingredients.
2. Apple and Grape Juice
Apple juice is another source of toxic arsenic. Consumer Reports testing looked at apple juice 88 samples from 28 brands of apple and grape juice, Consumer Reports discovered the following that about 10 percent of the samples contained arsenic levels that exceeded federal drinking-water standards. Why grape juice? Check your labels. Many brands use apple juice as a filler juice. (12)
3. Red wine
In 2015, University of Washington researchers released a study showing that 98 percent of red wines tested contained arsenic levels exceeding U.S. drinking water standards. Scientists analyzed 65 red wines from the four biggest wine-producing states: California, Washington, New York and Oregon.
The conclusion? If wine is a person’s only source of arsenic in the diet, it may not pose a health hazard. (Assuming people not heavy drinkers.) However, it’s wise to analyze your diet for sources of arsenic. If you’re eating and drinking several arsenic-rich selections, it’s best to cut some exposures out. (13)
How to Avoid Arsenic in Food
Aside from eating less rice and foods containing rice ingredients, there are a few tricks you can use to significantly lower arsenic levels in rice.
- Cook rice like pasta. Instead of following cooking instructions on rice packages, cook it by adding much more water. (Kind of how you’d cook pasta — 6 to 10 parts water per one part rice.) Scientists proved this method could reduce arsenic levels in rice by up to 40 percent. It could, however, also lower levels of some rice nutrients, too. (14)
- Researchers from the UK found that cooking rice in a coffee pot reduced arsenic by up to 85 percent. (15)
- Replace rice with quinoa, a low-arsenic grain that is also rich in protein. Buckwheat and millet are two other low-arsenic options.
Rice is a food staple around the world, but because the plant absorbs 10 times more arsenic than other grain plants, it often tests high in inorganic arsenic, the most dangerous form of the heavy metal. This type of arsenic is linked to certain cancers, developmental problems, cardiovascular disease, skin lesions and diabetes, among other health problems.
Although government agencies have been aware of this for many years, the FDA only proposed a maximum limit for arsenic in food in April 2016, and it only involves baby rice cereals. Luckily, there are several ways to reduce arsenic in rice, particularly healthier brown rice. These include cooking rice in lots of water and choosing rice grown in areas that produce products generally lower in arsenic.
But given the health threats associated with this risky crop, it only makes sense to set maximum allowable levels for arsenic in other foods, too. These include things like crackers, pastas and breakfast cereals where manufacturers can use other ingredients as substitutes for rice flour, bran or syrup. Environmental Working Group also advocates for funding research into growing techniques and technologies that will lower the amount of arsenic rice plants absorb. (16)