Arsenic in Rice & Safe Levels for Children

Some of the questions we get most often in the office are about introducing new foods to infants. You may have noticed that some of the answers have changed over the years — often quite a bit, and even within the last two years!

For example: we used to recommend holding off on introducing possible allergy-inducing foods such as eggs and shellfish until a year, or even as much as three years (in the case of peanut butter), after birth.  But research has shown that waiting does NOT reduce the risk, nor delay the development, of allergies, so there’s no reason to withhold these foods. (The recommendation to hold off on introducing honey until a year of age DOES still holds true, however.)

For some good, basic information on these changes, see our Nutrition Note on Infant Food Concerns.

Image courtesy of Consumer ReportsStudies in 2014 have shown that babies develop taste preferences MUCH earlier than previously thought, especially for sweet foods vs fruits and veggies. Which means we may have to re-think introducing those “puffs” that babies love so much — but that’s another subject for another time.

One popular “first food” that’s been in the news a lot the past couple of years has been rice (and rice cereal), due to reports that troubling levels of arsenic can be found it. We’ve posted info and updates on this subject on Facebook before, but a new investigation just released by Consumer Reports inspired me to write another, fuller update for 2015.

INDING ARSENIC LEVELS IN RICE

So, what’s the deal with arsenic in rice?

Consumer Reports began investigating this in 2012, where measurable levels were found in all 60 rice varieties tested. In 2013, the FDA investigated the inorganic arsenic content of a total of 656 rice-containing products. Unfortunately, the results show that rice cereal and rice pasta may have more arsenic than previously thought, and that a single serving could put children over the weekly limit of what they should have.

Here’s a summary of the information they found.

WHY THEY MATTER

So, why do we care so much about arsenic?

The inorganic form is part of our environment and is part of the minerals in the earth’s crust. It can be released into soil and water from pesticides and poultry feed. (Apparently, arsenic is ok for chickens to eat — who knew?!) Rice will absorb this more readily than many other plants.

Regular exposure to arsenic is a concern, because in a person’s lifetime, excess exposure can increase risk of lung, bladder and skin cancers, heart disease, and type 2 diabetes. Exposure in utero may have consequences for immunity in a developing baby.

There is currently no federal limit on rice and rice products, and research is still being done to establish safe levels of arsenic, and how much is too much.

NEW INFORMATION

So, what do we know for sure?

  • The arsenic content of rice depends on what kind and where it is grown. For example, rice from Arkansas, Texas, and Louisiana has the highest levels of inorganic arsenic. Basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan all tend to have lower levels.
  • Brown rice has significantly more inorganic arsenic, because it contains the outer layer, which is removed for white rice. It absorbs more arsenic, but also provides more nutrients. (Confusing enough?!)
  • Organically grown rice will also take up arsenic from soil and water.
  • Grains such as quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, millet ,and polenta have very low levels of arsenic and are also gluten-free.
  • Bulgur, barley, and farro (all gluten-containing) have lower levels of arsenic.

NEW RECOMMENDATIONS

So, what do we make of all this new information?

Well, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends and encourages a wider variety of “first foods” now, which helps to reduce environmental toxin exposure to any one food.

Beginning at 4-6 months, we recommend introducing a variety of first foods, such as oatmeal, wheat, and barley.

Rice is ok in small amounts, but probably not more than 1 serving a day of infant rice cereal and less than one serving a week of rice drinks, hot rice cereal, rice pasta, or rice cakes. This is especially important for our patients with celiac disease. Again: quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat (not the same as wheat), millet, and polenta would be good gluten-free options.

Once again, consider pushing vegetables, and look at labels carefully to be sure there is no added sugar or corn syrup in the foods you’re giving your baby. We want to cultivate a taste for the “good stuff” as early as possible.

As more information becomes available, we’ll keep you posted! And, as always, if you have any questions or concerns, just give us a call in the office any time.

Dr. Susan Stevens co-teaches our “Puberty. Seriously?” class for 9-12 year-old girls.