Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereal

Arsenic in Infant Rice Cereal
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When it comes to rice and rice-based products, pediatric nutrition authorities have recommended that arsenic intake should be as low as possible.

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Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“The US Food and Drug Administration…has been monitoring the arsenic content in foods [for decades],” yet “[d]espite [the] well-established science describing the health risks associated with arsenic exposure, no standards have been set limiting the amount of arsenic allowable in foods [in the United States].”

“[I]n 2001, the [EPA] adopted a new, stricter standard for arsenic in drinking water.” In 2013, the FDA proposed a legal limit for apple juice; yet, “[t]here are [still] no standards for arsenic in food [products] despite the fact that food sources are [our] main source of exposure.”

China has standards. As of 2014, China set “a maximum threshold of 150” parts per billion—stricter than the World Health Organization limit of 200. In the U.S., a 200 limit wouldn’t change the cancer risk much. Now, at 150, if we had China’s safety limits, that would help reduce cancer risk up to 23%, or even 47% at a limit of 100, but that could seriously affect the rice industry. In other words, U.S. rice is so contaminated with arsenic, if you set a safety standard that really cut down on cancer risk, it “would wipe out the U.S. rice market.” But, with no limits, what’s the incentive for the rice industry to change its practices? Setting arsenic limits would not only directly protect consumers, but also encourage the industry to stop planting rice paddies on arsenic-contaminated land.

But, those cancer estimates are based on arsenic-contaminated water studies. Maybe the arsenic in rice somehow has a different effect? You don’t know, until you put it to the test. Yes, rice has lots of toxic arsenic that urine studies show we absorb into our body, but, to date, there weren’t any studies “that demonstrate[d]…deleterious health impacts [specifically of] rice arsenic”—until this study.

They figured, hey, arsenic causes bladder cancer; so, let’s just see what kind of DNA mutations the urine of rice-eaters can have on human bladder cells growing in a petri dish. And indeed, they clearly demonstrated that eating lots of arsenic-contaminated rice every day can “give rise to significant amounts of genetic damage”—the kind that‘s associated with cancer. Yeah, but they used pretty contaminated rice. Only about 10 percent of the rice in certain parts of Asia might ever reach those levels, though a quarter in parts of Europe might, and over half in the U.S., making for “considerable” public health implications.

So, “[t]here remains little mystery surrounding the health risks associated with arsenic levels in rice. The remaining mystery is why long-overdue standards for arsenic levels in rice have not been set [in the United States].” But, that may be changing. Last year, the FDA proposed setting a limit on toxic arsenic—at least “in infant rice cereal.”

Infants and children under four average the highest rice intake, in part because they eat like three times the amount of food in relation to their body size. So, there’s an especially “urgent need for regulatory limits” on toxic arsenic in baby food.

Pediatric nutrition authorities have recommended that when it comes to “rice and rice-based products,…[a]rsenic intake should be as low as possible.” And, hey, how about as early as possible? “Approximately 90% of pregnant women eat rice,” which may end up having “adverse health effects” on the baby.

You can estimate how much rice the mom ate while pregnant by analyzing arsenic levels in infant toenail clippings. “Specifically, an increase of 1/4 cup of rice per day was associated with [about a 17%] increase in infant toenail” arsenic, indicating that rice arsenic can be passed along to the fetus. What might that much arsenic do? A quarter-cup of rice’s worth of arsenic has been associated with things like “low birth weight,…increased respiratory…infections,” and above that, “a 5-6 point reduction in IQ.” So, “based on the FDA’s findings, it would be prudent for pregnant women to consume a variety of foods, including varied grains”—which is all code for “cut down on rice.” Saying “eat less” of anything, after all, is bad for business.

Then, once the baby is weaning, “what’s a parent to do? To reduce arsenic risks, [Consumer Reports] recommend[s] that babies [average] no more than [a] serving of infant rice cereal a day,” relying on other grains instead, which are much less contaminated. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized, “there is no demonstrated benefit of rice cereal over…other grains, such as oat[s and] barley,…all of which have lower arsenic levels than rice cereal.” Reducing consumption of infant rice cereal to just two servings per week could have an even more dramatic effect on reducing risk.

The proposed limit on toxic arsenic in infant rice cereals would end up removing about half off the shelves. The FDA recently analyzed more than 500 infant and toddler foods, and the highest levels of toxic arsenic were found in organic brown rice cereals and toddler puffs. Based on the wording, though I can’t confirm it, they appear to be this brand. Not-so-happy baby if they suffer brain damage, or grow up to get cancer. A single serving could expose infants to twice the tolerable arsenic intake set by the EPA for water. I contacted the Happy Baby company, and was told that they were “not able to provide any comments on [the FDA’s] results.”

“Eliminating all rice and rice products from the diets of infants and [small] children up to 6 years old could reduce the lifetime cancer risk:  6% lower chance of developing lung or bladder cancer” later in life if infants stopped; 23% lower chance if young kids stopped. But, switching to other grains is a move described as “drastic and dramatic,” creating a “huge crisis”—for the rice industry presumably—and therefore, evidently, “not feasible at all.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image credit: Scott Anderson via Flickr. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Below is an approximation of this video’s audio content. To see any graphs, charts, graphics, images, and quotes to which Dr. Greger may be referring, watch the above video.

“The US Food and Drug Administration…has been monitoring the arsenic content in foods [for decades],” yet “[d]espite [the] well-established science describing the health risks associated with arsenic exposure, no standards have been set limiting the amount of arsenic allowable in foods [in the United States].”

“[I]n 2001, the [EPA] adopted a new, stricter standard for arsenic in drinking water.” In 2013, the FDA proposed a legal limit for apple juice; yet, “[t]here are [still] no standards for arsenic in food [products] despite the fact that food sources are [our] main source of exposure.”

China has standards. As of 2014, China set “a maximum threshold of 150” parts per billion—stricter than the World Health Organization limit of 200. In the U.S., a 200 limit wouldn’t change the cancer risk much. Now, at 150, if we had China’s safety limits, that would help reduce cancer risk up to 23%, or even 47% at a limit of 100, but that could seriously affect the rice industry. In other words, U.S. rice is so contaminated with arsenic, if you set a safety standard that really cut down on cancer risk, it “would wipe out the U.S. rice market.” But, with no limits, what’s the incentive for the rice industry to change its practices? Setting arsenic limits would not only directly protect consumers, but also encourage the industry to stop planting rice paddies on arsenic-contaminated land.

But, those cancer estimates are based on arsenic-contaminated water studies. Maybe the arsenic in rice somehow has a different effect? You don’t know, until you put it to the test. Yes, rice has lots of toxic arsenic that urine studies show we absorb into our body, but, to date, there weren’t any studies “that demonstrate[d]…deleterious health impacts [specifically of] rice arsenic”—until this study.

They figured, hey, arsenic causes bladder cancer; so, let’s just see what kind of DNA mutations the urine of rice-eaters can have on human bladder cells growing in a petri dish. And indeed, they clearly demonstrated that eating lots of arsenic-contaminated rice every day can “give rise to significant amounts of genetic damage”—the kind that‘s associated with cancer. Yeah, but they used pretty contaminated rice. Only about 10 percent of the rice in certain parts of Asia might ever reach those levels, though a quarter in parts of Europe might, and over half in the U.S., making for “considerable” public health implications.

So, “[t]here remains little mystery surrounding the health risks associated with arsenic levels in rice. The remaining mystery is why long-overdue standards for arsenic levels in rice have not been set [in the United States].” But, that may be changing. Last year, the FDA proposed setting a limit on toxic arsenic—at least “in infant rice cereal.”

Infants and children under four average the highest rice intake, in part because they eat like three times the amount of food in relation to their body size. So, there’s an especially “urgent need for regulatory limits” on toxic arsenic in baby food.

Pediatric nutrition authorities have recommended that when it comes to “rice and rice-based products,…[a]rsenic intake should be as low as possible.” And, hey, how about as early as possible? “Approximately 90% of pregnant women eat rice,” which may end up having “adverse health effects” on the baby.

You can estimate how much rice the mom ate while pregnant by analyzing arsenic levels in infant toenail clippings. “Specifically, an increase of 1/4 cup of rice per day was associated with [about a 17%] increase in infant toenail” arsenic, indicating that rice arsenic can be passed along to the fetus. What might that much arsenic do? A quarter-cup of rice’s worth of arsenic has been associated with things like “low birth weight,…increased respiratory…infections,” and above that, “a 5-6 point reduction in IQ.” So, “based on the FDA’s findings, it would be prudent for pregnant women to consume a variety of foods, including varied grains”—which is all code for “cut down on rice.” Saying “eat less” of anything, after all, is bad for business.

Then, once the baby is weaning, “what’s a parent to do? To reduce arsenic risks, [Consumer Reports] recommend[s] that babies [average] no more than [a] serving of infant rice cereal a day,” relying on other grains instead, which are much less contaminated. As the American Academy of Pediatrics has emphasized, “there is no demonstrated benefit of rice cereal over…other grains, such as oat[s and] barley,…all of which have lower arsenic levels than rice cereal.” Reducing consumption of infant rice cereal to just two servings per week could have an even more dramatic effect on reducing risk.

The proposed limit on toxic arsenic in infant rice cereals would end up removing about half off the shelves. The FDA recently analyzed more than 500 infant and toddler foods, and the highest levels of toxic arsenic were found in organic brown rice cereals and toddler puffs. Based on the wording, though I can’t confirm it, they appear to be this brand. Not-so-happy baby if they suffer brain damage, or grow up to get cancer. A single serving could expose infants to twice the tolerable arsenic intake set by the EPA for water. I contacted the Happy Baby company, and was told that they were “not able to provide any comments on [the FDA’s] results.”

“Eliminating all rice and rice products from the diets of infants and [small] children up to 6 years old could reduce the lifetime cancer risk:  6% lower chance of developing lung or bladder cancer” later in life if infants stopped; 23% lower chance if young kids stopped. But, switching to other grains is a move described as “drastic and dramatic,” creating a “huge crisis”—for the rice industry presumably—and therefore, evidently, “not feasible at all.”

Please consider volunteering to help out on the site.

Image credit: Scott Anderson via Flickr. Image has been modified.

Motion graphics by Avocado Video

Doctor's Note

I was hoping Happy Baby, upon learning of the concerning FDA arsenic toddler puffs data (regardless of whether the data were about its brand or not) would have kicked its own testing and potential remediation into high gear like Lundberg did (see Which Brands and Sources of Rice Have the Least Arsenic?). But, unfortunately, in my email correspondence with the company, I got no sense that it did.

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