According to a study by scientists at Dartmouth College, some baby formula and cereal bars sweetened with organic brown rice syrup exceed U.S. government standards for arsenic in bottled water. That standard is set at 10 parts per billion (ppb). There are currently no United States laws regulating arsenic content in food.
The Dartmouth study, published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, sampled 17 baby formulas, 29 cereal bars and three energy shot drinks, all purchased in New Hampshire. The brands were not named. The researchers found that the one of the two formulas that used organic brown rice syrup as a sweetener had arsenic levels at six times the federal limit for bottled water. Brown rice syrup is used in some products instead of other sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup.
An analysis by Consumer Reports about arsenic in fruit juices last year raised concerns among consumer groups and some lawmakers. That study found that 10% of the juices sampled, from five brands, had arsenic levels higher than the drinking water standard. Consumer Report’s findings prompted Congressman Frank Pallone (D-NJ) and Congresswoman Rose DeLauro (D-CT) to introduce a bill to protect children from arsenic and lead in fruit juices.
The USDA has stated that it knows arsenic is present in foods, and has recently conducted a study studying that compound in rice that is expected to be completed this year.
Babies and children are especially vulnerable to arsenic because of their small size and their rapid rate of growth. And high arsenic levels can affect brain and nervous system development.
Rice is a major source of inorganic arsenic because much of it is grown in former cotton fields, and the rice plant is very efficient at absorbing arsenic from the soil and water as it grows. Arsenic-based pesticides were heavily used on cotton crops in the southern United States in the last century until they were banned in the 1980s. In fact, rice grown in former cotton fields contains almost twice the amount of arsenic as rice grown in California.
Unfortunately, even organically-grown rice can contain arsenic. In order for foods to be certified organic, the farms where they are grown must be free of pesticide use for three years. But arsenic can remain in the soil for decades.
Unless you eat a lot of cereal bars containing rice syrup, there’s no need to worry about that product, which has arsenic levels of 23 to 128 ppb. But the arsenic levels in baby formula are a cause for concern. The scientists at Dartmouth who conducted the study said there is an “urgent need” to regulate arsenic levels in food.