The more rice products they consume, the more infants are at risk of developing increased levels of arsenic, according to a new study published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics.
The study examined the dietary data on 759 infants, and researchers found that 80 percent of them were introduced to rice cereal during their first year of life. They examined arsenic levels in infants’ urine to gauge whether there were differences between the babies who ate rice products and those who did not.
Researchers found that infants who ate rice cereal had more than three times the amount of arsenic levels in their urine compared with the infants who ate no rice products of any kind.
Arsenic is naturally occurring and found in soil and water. Rice grains are particularly adept at concentrating both organic and inorganic arsenic levels, leading to concerns that rice products may result in infants being exposed to elevated amounts of arsenic.
Infants are often given rice cereal and rice snacks as the first solid food they eat because there is a low chance of allergic reaction and it helps them learn to eat. Rice intake for infants, primarily in the form of rice cereal, is three times greater than adults in relation to body weight, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Lolita McDavid, a pediatrician and medical director for Child Advocacy and Protection at UH Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, said rice cereal is used to teach children -- 4 to 6 months old -- how to eat, but that parents concerned about arsenic can use other kinds of food as well.
"The reason most of us start with rice cereal, it's very, very rare to find a child who can’t tolerate rice," McDavid explained. "You don’t have to have any cereal. You can just start the baby with [pureed] fruits and vegetables" when they're older, she added.
The FDA announced earlier this month that it will propose a limit on "inorganic arsenic" in infant rice cereal because of concerns about the potential long-term effects of exposure to arsenic in food. It put a target limit of 100 parts per billion level for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. A similar level has been set by the European Commission for rice products aimed at infants and young children.
The new proposal comes after a 2016 FDA risk assessment, which found an association with inorganic arsenic exposure and adverse pregnancy outcomes and neurological effects in early life for children.
The FDA said many rice products on the market were below or close to the target limit posted.
“Our actions are driven by our duty to protect the public health and our careful analysis of the data and the emerging science,” said Susan Mayne, director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in a statement earlier this month. “The proposed limit is a prudent and achievable step to reduce exposure to arsenic among infants.”
The FDA didn’t point fingers at any one baby food company, but Gerber Products still sought to reassure customers after the FDA announcement that its rice cereal was safe to eat. Company officials said they use rice grown exclusively in California that, they said, had the lowest arsenic levels in the United States.
“Gerber monitors and controls for arsenic in our rice ingredients, as arsenic can occur naturally in rice through the growing process. Any ingredient that does not meet our high standards for quality is rejected,” the company said in a statement. “It is not possible to completely eliminate arsenic in food and it has not been determined that there is any safety concern.”
McDavid said parents can continue to feed their children rice as experts wait on the FDA to make official recommendations.
"Until the FDA tells us what is an unhealthy level of arsenic, I think people will probably continue to have parents use rice cereal," she said.
Researchers called for more study to examine whether elevated levels of arsenic actually translate to measurable health effects in the long term.
"Our results indicate that consumption of rice and rice products increases infants’ exposure to [arsenic],” the study authors said, “and that regulation could reduce [arsenic] exposure during this critical phase of development.”