By Megan Boyle, Editorial Director
Are you among the many parents who fed their baby rice cereal as a first solid food?
If so, you may have accidentally exposed your infant to a shocking, hidden ingredient: arsenic.
In 2012, Consumer Reports found arsenic in every brand of infant rice cereals it tested – nearly ten times the legal limit for drinking water. Two years later, the results were worse: just one serving of infant rice cereal can put children over the weekly maximum advised by Consumer Reports.
Arsenic is a metallic element that occurs naturally in the environment. The U.S. government labels arsenic and its inorganic compounds known human carcinogens. The World Health Organization lists arsenic among its 10 chemicals of major public health concern.
Fruits, vegetables and grains can absorb arsenic through soil and water, but rice is unique in that it takes up more arsenic than other crops. In the U.S., rice and rice-based foods cause more arsenic exposure than contaminated drinking water. And the health concerns are serious: long-term human exposure to inorganic arsenic is linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, lung disease, diabetes and more.
Research suggests that arsenic exposure during pregnancy and childhood can lower a child’s IQ, make the child more susceptible to infections and increase the risk of obesity and diabetes. Worse, the estimated exposure of kids to inorganic arsenic is two to three times higher than adults, according to the European Food Safety Authority.
Efforts are under way to strengthen regulations that would limit the amount of arsenic in rice. Rep. Rosa L. DeLauro, D-Conn, introduced the Reducing food-based Inorganic Compounds Exposure (RICE) Act last May. If passed, the bill would require the federal Food and Drug Administration to set a maximum level for arsenic in rice and rice-based foods.
The European Food Standards Agency is close to setting limits for the maximum amount of inorganic arsenic allowable in rice and rice-based foods. The proposed regulation would restrict arsenic in foods to only half that allowed for adults.
Such regulations are a vital step towards protecting children and adults from this harmful contaminant, but progress is slow.
In the meantime, what can parents do to safeguard their little ones?
Make change today. If you have rice cereal in your kitchen cabinet, today is the day to commit to change. If you already fed your infant rice cereal, take comfort in knowing that the harmful effects of arsenic accrue over a lifetime. But start taking steps to limit arsenic ingestion from now on. It’s never too late.
Diversify. Reduce your children’s arsenic exposure by introducing them to a wide variety of foods, including soft fruits and vegetables like avocado, sweet potatoes and bananas. The American Academy of Pediatrics also recommends finely chopped meat for a good source of iron. For healthier cereals, try whole grain or oats, which can be blended to a finer texture and cooked in water for easy eating.
Don’t substitute rice milk for cow’s milk. Brands of rice milk tested by Consumer Reports contained higher concentrations of arsenic than the EPA maximum in drinking water. That’s a big deal for children under five, who drink a lot of milk and have small bodies to metabolize it. Talk to your pediatrician about options that meet your child’s specific health needs.
Serve less juice. Some apple, grape and pear juices contain moderate amounts of arsenic, due to the lingering presence of arsenic-based pesticides ubiquitous in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Plus, fruits juices are high in sugar and fill up tummy space that is better occupied by nutritious, whole foods. It’s best to skip juice altogether, but if you still choose to serve it, limit servings to one-half to one cup daily. Diluting juice with water helps.
Look out for sweeteners. Brown rice syrup, which is sometimes used to sweeten snack bars and non-dairy beverages, contains high concentrations of arsenic. Read labels and avoid this ingredient.
To learn more about arsenic in rice and how to protect loved ones of all ages, visit EWG’s Food Scores.