20160428 arsenic rice cereal

When you hear the word “arsenic,” your mind probably thinks about secret poisonings and the stuff that a good plot line of a murder mystery saga would be made of.  However, in the past few weeks, “arsenic” and “infant baby cereals” have been in the same breath in news headlines.  How is it possible that these two things could even be related, and do you need to throw your infant rice cereal into a hazmat bag? Read on to find out.

Arsenic is naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust and can be found in water, soil and air.  It is also, surprisingly to some, found in our food and water supply.  Arsenic can be found in two forms- organic and inorganic- and it is the inorganic form that is more worrisome as it has been linked with various cancers and decreased performance on developmental tests.  You may be wondering how a harmful substance such as arsenic could make it into our food supply, but the answer is quite simple…irrigation and rain!

Drinking water is considered safe as long as the arsenic level is less than 10 parts per billion.

Rain water run off and even water through irrigation systems can lead to arsenic getting into our crops.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has been monitoring the level of arsenic in our water and food supply for decades, and with recent technology that can differentiate the types of arsenic in foods (i.e the testing can pick out the inorganic form), there has been some concerned raised about the level of arsenic in several common staple foods, most importantly, rice.  It seems that rice has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other crops such as oat, barley and whole grains simply because rice grain, which is grown in the ground surrounded by water, has more “exposure” to the contaminant and therefore has a higher chance of being absorbed.

When testing foods or liquids for levels of arsenic, it is reported as “parts per billion.”  For example, drinking water is considered safe as long as the arsenic level is less than 10 parts per billion.  Based on recent studies, the FDA is proposing a limit of 100 parts per billion for the acceptable level of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereals.  This would mirror the limits set by the European equivalent to the FDA.  Recent FDA studies looked at 76 samples of infant rice cereal as well as over 400 samples of other foods commonly eaten by infants and toddlers.  Of the rice cereals tested, just under 50% were under the proposed standard of 100 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic.  Of the other 400 samples of non-rice foods that were also tested, none of them had inorganic arsenic levels above 100 parts per billion.

I think it is important for parents to know that rice cereal is not a MUST for infants.

As rice cereal manufactures get moving on this new proposal for a limit on the amount of inorganic arsenic in their products, what is a parent to do?  Well, I think it is important for parents to know that rice cereal is not a MUST for infants.  Wait…is that against everything grandparents have told you about feeding your baby?? It might be, but there is really nothing magical about rice cereal.  It used to be considered a great “first food” for babies, but there are really no recent studies showing that to be true.   Foods such as oatmeal cereal, veggie and fruit purees, and even soft textured table foods if doing baby lead weaning, are good options when infants begin complementary foods.  Now, it is true that rice cereal is fortified with iron which exclusively breastfed infants need beginning around 6 months of age, but other cereals like oatmeal are also fortified with iron, and infants can also be started on vitamins with iron around this time to get the iron that they need.  For toddlers and young children, make sure that their diet is not solely composed of rice or rice products (I know toddlers can be picky but other multi-grains and food groups are a must), and try to limit foods that might be sweetened with brown rice syrup as these foods may have even higher levels of arsenic.  Finally, rice milk is, in most cases, not an ideal substitute for cow’s milk unless under the direction of a doctor.

A few other quick points about rice:

  1. So called “organic” rice has no less arsenic than “conventional” rice brands.  
  2. Brown rice actually has higher levels of arsenic than white rice.
  3. Rinsing rice with water before cooking has little impact on reducing the amount of arsenic present.  It does, however, rinse away valuable nutrients like iron and folate.
  4. Cooking rice in excess water (6-10 parts water to 1 part rice) may reduce the amount of arsenic present, but again, it also reduces the amount of those other nutrients as well.

So as you prepare for your shopping trip to get ready for your first big dinner date with your baby, make sure your cart has items other than a box of rice cereal.  While I do not think parents need to avoid rice cereal at all costs, it doesn’t need to be a staple food either.   These recent news headlines about arsenic levels in infant rice cereals deserve our attention, but parents should know there are great alternatives to rice cereal as “first food” choices.  Beginning solid foods with your baby should be a fun, exciting, and messy time (be prepared when your precious, raspberry-blowing baby gets a mouthful of pureed carrots)!  So get ready to enjoy this new adventure, and, as always, if you have questions about starting solids in your baby, make sure and bring them up with your child’s pediatrician.