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A Common Organic Sweetener May Boost Arsenic Levels in Foods

Study Shows Brown Rice Syrup Adds Arsenic to Many Natural, Organic Products
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Arsenic in Baby Formula

Two kinds of organic formula that listed brown rice syrup as their first ingredient, for example, had arsenic levels that were two to five times higher than the limits allowed in drinking water.

“The infant formula is really troubling, concerning,” says Michael Bloom, PhD, an assistant professor in the department of environmental health sciences at the University of Albany, State University of New York, in Rensselaer.

“These children who are fed with formula almost exclusively are getting a very high relative dose of arsenic from these sources,” says Bloom, who studies the health effects of arsenic exposure, but was not involved in the research.

In three of the samples, most of the arsenic that was detected was organic, which has been thought to be less harmful than inorganic arsenic.

But experts say new evidence suggests that the kind of organic arsenic picked up in the study, DMA, is not risk-free.

“The available evidence suggests that it is toxic, too,” says Navas-Acien.

The arsenic levels detected in the formula were still too low to cause immediate illness.

But over the longer term, studies have shown that young children exposed to moderate arsenic levels, over 50 micrograms per liter, are more likely to have lower IQs and reduced brain function compared to kids drinking water with arsenic levels below 5.5 micrograms per liter.

For comparison, three samples of the formula made with brown rice syrup in the study had about 30 micrograms of arsenic per liter. The fourth sample had nearly 60 micrograms of arsenic per liter.

The U.S. EPA says drinking water shouldn’t contain more than 10 micrograms per liter.

How Arsenic Gets Into Rice

Arsenic is a colorless, tasteless substance that’s naturally present in the environment. It’s also used as a fertilizer and wood preservative. Once in the soil, it can persist for years. It easily dissolves in water.

According to a previous WebMD interview with John M. Duxbury, PhD, a professor of soil science and international agriculture at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., rice is particularly vulnerable to arsenic contamination because it grows in water. 

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