If you're shopping organic and see brown rice syrup listed first among ingredients, you may want to think twice: That product could have high levels of potentially toxic arsenic, Dartmouth researchers reported today.
A team led by environmental chemist Brian P. Jackson found what Jackson called dangerous amounts of arsenic in organic powdered baby formula, intended for toddlers, whose top ingredient was brown rice syrup. That formula contained six times more arsenic than the Environmental Protection Agency considers safe for the water supply.
Jackson and his colleagues also reported elevated arsenic levels in some brown rice-sweetened cereal bars, energy bars and energy "shots"consumed by endurance athletes, according to a study published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.The results, which do not identify any products by name, follow recent reports about trace levels of arsenic in apple juice and previous reports of arsenic in rice.
ABC News conducted an online search for baby formula with organic brown rice syrup as the primary ingredient and found two products, Baby's Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby's Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula, both made by Nature's One.
In a prepared response, Nature's One said its California-based supplier of the syrup "uses 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."
"As an organic manufacturer, Nature's One's primary concern is the amount of environmental chemicals ingested by infants, toddlers and children. Parents can rest assured that Nature's One® will test arsenic levels for every lot of organic brown rice syrup and organic rice oligodextrin prior to production," the statement said. Rice oligodextrin is another type of sugar also used in some baby products.
Given that organic brown rice syrup "may introduce significant concentrations of arsenic to an individual's diet," the researchers saw "an urgent need for regulatory limits on arsenic in food." Dietary sources of arsenic represent "potentially a big public health issue that has not been taken on board," Jackson told ABCNews.com.
The Food and Drug Administration has been sampling and testing a variety of "more conventional" rice products, including rice crackers and rice cereals, "to evaluate what the risk is and what the levels are in these products" said Siobhan DeLancey, a spokeswoman for the agency's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Depending on what the testing reveals, she said there was "a possibility" that the agency would set a threshold for arsenic levels in rice. The FDA previously set a "level of concern" of 23 parts per billion of arsenic for fruit juices, the only other food to have such a designated level. The EPA standard for arsenic in drinking water is 10 ppb.
"The bottom line is this shows there's a need for FDA to figure out some limits on this and put that out there," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C. She said FDA needs to take a broader approach toward arsenic in what we eat, rather than going "food by food."
"There's been quite a lot of press on arsenic in rice in the past six years, but less so on the rice products," Jackson told ABCNews.com. As Americans consume more rice-containing foods, they're unknowingly ingesting more arsenic, he cautioned. He pointed out that they're buying more organic packaged foods, more gluten-free products made from rice instead of wheat flour, and choosing foods sweetened with organic brown rice syrup because of the buzz they've heard linking high-fructose corn syrup and obesity.
But they're frequently unaware that many of these foods contain rice. "Even if you were an educated consumer, some products might just creep under the radar," Jackson said in an interview Wednesday.
The maker of organic toddler formula with brown rice syrup probably "has the best of intentions. They're trying to produce a ... formula people want to buy," Jackson said.
Jackson said he originally was studying arsenic levels in major brands of baby formulas, but even those made with rice starch were low. However, two organic formulas, intended for toddlers, (one milk-based, the other soy-based) made with brown rice syrup had 20 to 30 times more arsenic than the other formulas.