Baby Formula

Could there be poison in your baby’s bottle? New research suggests that organic baby formulas sweetened with brown rice syrup may contain high levels of arsenic.

It may sound like something out of a British murder mystery, but arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can contaminate groundwater. Dr. Brian Jackson, director of the Trace Element Analysis Core Facility at Dartmouth College, recently published a study that looked at arsenic in rice and in particular, brown rice syrup.  Because of the way it grows, rice may be especially vulnerable to arsenic contamination, usually left over from chemical fertilizers applied to the soil. The rice may be organic now, but the field hasn’t always been.  

The Dartmouth study looks at the concentration of arsenic in commercial foods that use brown rice syrup as an organic sweetener, including cereal bars, energy bars and infant formulas.

Every food tested had higher arsenic levels than similar products that did not contain brown rice syrup. Most shockingly, two toddler formulas that had brown rice syrup as a primary ingredient contained arsenic levels 20 times higher than those that didn’t use the sweetener—more than six times the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb) for total arsenic.

An online search for formulas with brown rice syrup as the main ingredient revealed the two to most likely be Baby’s Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby’s Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula from Nature’s One. Nature’s One said in a statement that their syrup supplier “uses [a] qualified, world-renowned, third-party, independent lab to test arsenic levels in their organic brown rice syrup. Their testing results report undetectable amounts of arsenic at laboratory testing limits.”

How Much Is Too Much?

Neither the Food and Drug Administration nor the EPA has a limit on the amount of arsenic allowed in food or drink, but with arsenic levels well above the amount the EPA says is safe for drinking water, it seems fair to assume these levels can’t be healthy in foods, either.

After Dr. Mehmet Oz, host of “The Dr. Oz Show,” created a controversy in 2011 when he found high levels of arsenic in apple juice, the FDA website states that they are considering setting a standard for arsenic levels in apple juice.

The risks associated with consuming arsenic in foods or drinks hasn’t been studied, but studies do suggest that drinking water contaminated with arsenic increases the risk for some cancers and heart disease.

What To Do

There’s no reason to panic, of course, but consumers should take these new findings into account when shopping. The risk of arsenic poisoning to the occasional cereal bar eater is fairly low, but prominent physicians are suggesting parents avoid baby products containing brown rice syrup. Because babies’ bodies are smaller, their systems can be more susceptible to environmental toxins.

It’s a good reminder that just because a product is organic, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe. Dr. Jackson and other doctors are recommending that parents and people following a gluten-free diet (who tend to consume more rice products) check labels carefully and limit their exposure to brown rice syrup. Other doctors suggest that parents should make sure that their child’s main source of calories does not come from rice.

image: bradleygee