Arsenic is totally bad for you. Even if it doesn't kill you a la the classic "old lace" cocktail, small amounts have been associated with raising the risk for cancer and heart disease. Chronic arsenic ingestion in the young appears to result in dumb children (low IQ and "poor intellectual function"). Because babies and toddlers are smaller than adults, they get a bigger exposure -- based on body weight -- of arsenic from a given serving of food than an adult would.
Now a new study published Feb. 16 in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives suggests that organic brown-rice syrup, a sweetener used in many organic and gluten-free foods as well as in baby formula, may be a hidden source of the poison, Time reports. Dartmouth College and Dartmouth Medical School researchers examined foods containing organic brown rice syrup and found evidence that some baby formulas, cereal bars and energy shots contained levels of arsenic that were significantly higher than the 10 parts per billion (ppb) federal limit for drinking or bottled water.
In a grim twist, the researchers also point out that there are no U.S. regulatory limits for arsenic in food (although that doesn't make it OK to put arsenic in your cheating boyfriend's iced latte). "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.
One of the 17 infant formulas tested had an arsenic concentration six times the federal limit on arsenic in water. Twenty-two of the 29 cereal bars or energy bars had arsenic levels ranging from 23 to 128 ppb. Tests of three different energy gels showed that one contained 84 ppb of total arsenic, and the other two contained 171 ppb. Most of the arsenic detected in the bars and energy gels was inorganic, the kind that's believed to be the most toxic. In three of the formula samples, most of the arsenic that was detected was organic, which has been thought to be less harmful than inorganic arsenic. But experts say new evidence suggests that the kind of organic arsenic picked up in the study, DMA, is not risk-free.
Arsenic is a colorless, tasteless substance that's naturally present in the environment. It's also used as a fertilizer and wood preservative. It can persist in soil for years and easily dissolves in water, which, as we reported in December, makes rice particularly vulnerable, since it is grown in water. Because arsenic is stored in the darker outer layers of the rice grain, brown rice contains higher levels of arsenic than white.
Of course, rice growers say their products are being unfairly targeted. "U.S. rice and rice products are safe to consume," Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, a spokeswoman for the USA Rice Federation, told WebMD. "There has been no documented incident where ingestion of rice or rice products has led to human health problems, and the U.S. rice industry is committed to maintaining the safety of U.S. rice and rice products." Isn't that what they always say?
The Dartmouth researchers counter that there is an "urgent need" for regulatory limits on arsenic in food. The Food and Drug Administration is finally looking into the issue, after high levels of arsenic were recently found in apple and grape juice. Legislation was introduced earlier this month in the House of Representatives to prod the FDA, but that applies only to arsenic in juice. While we're waiting for the FDA to move, the researchers say to limit daily consumption of foods known to contain arsenic, because even seemingly small exposures from juices, rice or rice-fortified foods add up. And if you're a baby, try to stick to mama's milk.
Follow Samantha Bonar @samanthabonar.