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What You Need to Know About Arsenic in Baby Formula

Brown rice syrup is increasingly being used as an alternative sweetener in many natural foods, but could it actually be doing more harm than good? Here’s what parents need to know about the new research that has some experts concerned about too-high levels of arsenic in some packaged foods.

Food items containing organic brown rice syrup were shown to contain high concentrations of arsenic in a recent Dartmouth College study. Researchers examined several varieties of infant formula, cereal and energy bars, and high-energy foods for endurance athletes (like energy gels) and found that the ones sweetened with brown rice syrup contained more arsenic than their rice syrup-free counterparts.

The findings sound scary, but the recent media frenzy could be overblown. We’re all exposed to small amounts of arsenic every day, since the element exists naturally in the air, soil, and water. Exposure also comes through a variety of foods in which arsenic is found, like fruits, vegetables, and grains—including brown rice (the plants extract arsenic from the soil as they grow). Most of the arsenic found in U.S.-grown rice is a type that’s excreted through urine and doesn’t accumulate in the body. (The other type of arsenic, which occurs in the air and water when it combines with elements other than carbon, is the government classifies as a carcinogen.)

According to government standards, drinking water must contain less than 10 parts per billion of the dangerous type of arsenic. Baby formulas containing brown rice syrup were found to contain arsenic “equal to or 1.5 to 2 times higher than the drinking water standard,” says Brian Jackson, Ph.D, lead author of the Dartmouth study. The number might sound like a lot, but most of that arsenic was show to be the type that’s excreted through urine. What’s more, “drinking water standards are calculated to reduce risk for disease assuming a lifetime of exposure,” Jackson says. “Making health judgments on drinking [formula] at that limit for a couple of months is almost impossible.” In other words, the risks from consuming foods containing brown rice syrup occasionally (like snacking on an energy bar on a busy day) or for a short period of time (like when a baby is formula-fed) are very small.  “I don’t think [parents] need to panic, but if you are concerned about arsenic exposure, I’d suggest switching to a formula that doesn’t use rice syrup,” says Jackson. One brand of organic baby formula, Nature’s One, released a statement saying that their source of rice contains undetectable amounts of arsenic, and that they’ll continue to have every lot of their brown rice syrup tested for arsenic by an independent third party.

Still, the authors of the Dartmouth study and others, like the Organic Trade Association (OTA), say the government should place limits on arsenic levels in food like it does with water. One way to ensure less arsenic gets into our food is organic farming: “Organic production practices are part of the solution to reducing the application of arsenic-laden herbicides,” said Christine Bushway, OTA’s Executive Director and CEO. She added, “These applications are prohibited in organic agriculture. Moreover, this is verified through third-party inspection and strict regulations.” The OTA plans to develop a task force that will work to help organic producers keep arsenic out of their food, Bushway says.

Reprinted from KIWI Magazine

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