A new Consumer Report article is generating buzz again about the levels of arsenic in our food supply. It should be noted from the start there is no active recall of any products, in part because the FDA lacks federal standards on arsenic in food. Food Court reached out to the FDA for comment and is awaiting its response (*updated response from FDA*).
Consumer Reports cites research at Dartmouth College as finding arsenic in some foods that use organic brown rice syrup as a sweetener, including infant formula and cereal bars. As the Dr. Oz publicity of arsenic in apple juice taught us there are two types of arsenic – organic and inorganic, the latter being a human carcinogen at some threshold (read more). The majority of the detected arsenic in the Dartmouth study, a contaminant often found in rice, was the type that is known to be a human carcinogen.
Important findings of the study, published online Feb. 16 by the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives include:
- Two of 17 infant formulas tested listed organic brown rice syrup as the primary ingredient. One had a total arsenic concentration that was six times the federal limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for total arsenic in bottled or public drinking water. This is particularly worrisome for babies because they are especially vulnerable to arsenic’s toxic effects due to their small size and the corresponding arsenic consumption per pound of body weight.
- Twenty-two of 29 cereal bars or energy bars tested listed at least one of these four rice products—organic brown rice syrup, rice flour, rice grain or rice flakes – among the top five ingredients. The seven other bars were among the lowest in total arsenic, ranging from 8 to 27 ppb, while those containing syrup or other forms of rice ranged from 23 to 128 ppb.
- Tests of high-energy products known as “energy shots” that are used by endurance athletes and others showed that one of the three gel-like blocks contained 84 ppb of total arsenic, while the other two contained 171 ppb.
The Dartmouth researchers conclude that given the increasing prevalence of hidden arsenic in food, “there is an urgent need for regulatory limits on As (arsenic) in food.” They also cited Consumer Reports’ recent investigation, which found elevated levels of arsenic in apple and grape juices, as further evidence that U.S. consumers are being exposed to worrisome concentrations of arsenic in foods and beverages. Legislation was introduced Feb. 8 in the U.S. House of Representatives, the APPPLE Juice Act called on the Food and Drug Administration to establish standards for both arsenic and lead in fruit juices; there are currently no federal thresholds for arsenic in juices or most foods.
Consumer Reports cites studies by other researchers which have shown that rice can be a significant source of dietary exposure to this toxin. Rice is among the plants that take up arsenic from the soil, which can be problematic if grown in areas awhere arsenical pesticides were used.
“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,” says Brian Jackson, Ph.D., lead author of this latest study and a member of Dartmouth’s Superfund Research Program, which is funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. He noted, however, that infant formulas containing added rice starch did not appear to be a concern in terms of elevated arsenic.
Jackson also pointed out that brown rice syrup is likely to have higher arsenic concentrations than other sweeteners whether the rice is grown organically or not. “That’s because the rice takes up natural arsenic from the soil and when the rice is used to make brown rice syrup, much of that arsenic ends up there,” he said. “We focused on organic brown rice syrup because this seems to be a sweetener of choice for some organic food products.”
Food Court will update this story when it receives a comment from the FDA. Until then read more from Consumer Reports on how to avoid potential arsenic in the food supply.
***UPDATE: Read the FDA’s response to Food Court.***
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