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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
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

Feb. 16, 2012 -- Organic brown rice syrup, a popular sweetener in organic and gluten-free foods -- including  some formulas made for toddlers -- is a source of the toxin arsenic, a new study shows.

Experts say regularly eating foods that use organic brown rice syrup as a main ingredient could expose a person to more arsenic than the government allows in drinking water, raising the risks for cancer and heart disease. In young children, chronic arsenic exposure has been linked to lower IQs and poorer intellectual function.

“This seems to be quite strong evidence,” says Ana Navas-Acien, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of environmental health sciences and epidemiology at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore, Md. 

“I would personally not buy formula made of brown rice,” says Navas-Acien, who studies the health effects of arsenic exposure. She was not involved in the current research.

Manufacturers insist that their products are safe.

Rice Products Are on FDA's Radar

It’s not the first time arsenic has turned up in rice-based foods for infants and toddlers. Last year, researchers in Sweden reported finding elevated levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in rice cereals, which parents often use to transition children to solid foods.

Because babies and toddlers are smaller than adults, they get a bigger exposure (based on body weight) of arsenic from a given serving of food than an adult would. And their developing organs may be especially sensitive to environmental exposures.

Regulatory agencies in Europe and the U.K. are in the midst of setting new limits for arsenic in foods, particularly foods made for young children.

In the U.S., there are no set standards for arsenic in food. The FDA is weighing a limit for arsenic in fruit juice after recent tests turned up high levels in some brands of apple juice.

The FDA says rice products are also on its radar. The agency confirms that it has recently tested rice products for arsenic. The results of those tests are pending.

Researchers say they are glad the FDA is stepping up its scrutiny of arsenic in foods.

“We need to elevate the discussion about whether we do need regulations and guidelines for arsenic in food,” says researcher Brian P. Jackson, PhD, director of trace metal analysis at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. “And rice-based foods would be the first foods we should look at, I think.”

Rice growers disagree that their products should be singled out.

“U.S. rice and rice products are safe to consume,” says Stacy Fitzgerald-Redd, a spokesperson for the USA Rice Federation. “When discussing the content of arsenic in foods it is essential to distinguish between organic and inorganic arsenic,” she tells WebMD.

“Most of the arsenic found in rice is organic arsenic, the benign kind, and the U.S. rice industry is working with U.S. regulatory officials as they look into this issue,” she says.

“There has been no documented incident where ingestion of rice or rice products has led to human health problems, and the U.S. rice industry is committed to maintaining the safety of U.S. rice and rice products,” the statement says.

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