Consumers, especially mothers of infants and health conscious people, do not expect the food they buy to contain poisonous arsenic. However, rice and certain foods made with brown rice syrups, including baby formula and energy bars, may be significantly contributing to arsenic exposure in the U.S. population and there are no government regulations to prevent it.
Arsenic is an odorless and tasteless semi-metal that occurs naturally in the environment. People may also suffer exposure to inorganic arsenic compounds from industrial applications and products such as wood preservatives, paints, dyes and metals, agricultural sources such as fertilizer, and from mining and coal burning.
Because arsenic is often found in groundwater, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has set a maximum arsenic level of .010 parts per million (10 parts per billion) for drinking water. There are currently no regulations setting a limit on the amount of arsenic that can be in food.
Rice is a major food staple for millions of Americans. Not only rice in its grain form, but also rice cereals, crackers and rice drinks. However, rice absorbs arsenic from the environment while growing, the level of which can vary greatly from growing region to growing region. Brown rice is usually higher in arsenic than white rice because the outer aleurone layer is removed from white rice.
A study published in the December 2011 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America entitled Rice consumption contributes to arsenic exposure found that pregnant women who ate rice had significantly higher levels of arsenic in their urine than women who did not.
Consumers may not recognize that many processed foods contain rice-based ingredients. Makers of organic food products often use organic brown rice syrup (OBRS) as a sweetener instead of high fructose corn syrup.
A new study by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NEIHS) set out to measure the level of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup and products containing the ingredient, such as baby formula, cereal/energy bars and high-energy foods used by athletes. The study, entitled Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup appears in the February 2012 issue of Environmental Health Perspectives.
The researchers found that each of the organic brown rice syrups tested contained arsenic.
Out of 17 baby formulas tested, only two contained organic brown rice syrup and those had arsenic levels more than 20 times greater than formulas that did not contain the sweetener. When reconstituted, the baby formulas with organic brown rice syrup had levels at or above the EPA’s maximum level of arsenic in the water supply.
The cereal bars and energy bars listing organic brown rice syrup, rice flour, rice grain or rice flakes in their ingredients had higher levels of arsenic than comparable products that did not.
The researchers also tested gel-like energy shot products containing OBRS and found that athletes who consume the products in dosages recommended by the manufacturer would consumer arsenic equal to that in 1 liter of water at the EPA’s limit.
Arsenic exposure is linked to many adverse health effects, including skin lesions, cancer and cardiovascular disease. Unborn children may be most at risk as arsenic exposure in the womb is related to infant mortality, low birth weight, immune system dysfunction and increased risk death from lung cancer later in life. Children can be more susceptible to arsenic poisoning due to their small, developing bodies.
"I don't think there's much risk associated with eating a cereal bar every couple of days," lead study researcher Brian P. Jackson told Reuters. "But it is a source of arsenic that we may not be considering."
Jackson did advise that it would be best to avoid baby formulas containing organic brown rice syrup until the government regulates arsenic in these products.
According to ABC news, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been testing rice products and considering setting a maximum allowable level of arsenic. Fruit juice is the only food product the FDA has set an arsenic “level of concern” of 23 parts per billion.