Natural sweetener taints 'healthy' foods with arsenic

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Brown rice syrup, a natural sweetener, a hidden source of arsenic.
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Brown rice syrup used as a natural sweetener is found in a new study to contain arsenic that may expose consumers, including susceptible children, to higher levels of the toxin than levels allowed by the FDA in drinking water. Dartmouth researchers found high levels in infant formula, cereal bars and energy shots.

Brown rice syrup listed as the main ingredient in the food products was found to contain the highest levels of arsenic that might be unsafe, raising the risk of cancer. Foods that don’t list brown rice as the primary ingredient have lower concentrations.

The syrup is put in organic foods as a healthier alternative than corn syrup which has fallen under scrutiny for contributing to obesity. Arsenic is a contaminant that comes from the soil.

Brian Jackson and colleagues at Dartmouth found cereals and high-energy bars had higher levels of arsenic from brown rice syrup. They also found six times the amount of the toxin in infant formulas than what is recommended by U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's (EPA) safe drinking water limit of 10 parts per billion (ppb).

Jackson is a member of Dartmouth’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS). He is the lead author on the study published February 16, 2012, in Environmental Health Perspectives, a collaboration between in Dartmouth's EPA and NIEHS funded Children's Environmental Health and Disease Prevention Center. He also directs the Trace Element Analysis Core Facility at Dartmouth.

Food products for the study were purchased in the Hanover New Hampshire area and included 17 formulas, 29 cereal bars, and 3 energy "shots".

Only two of the 17 infant formulas listed organic brown rice syrup as the primary ingredient. One was soy based and the other milk based.

Each contained more than 20 times the amount of inorganic arsenic as other infant formulas - 8.6 ppb for the dairy based formula and 21.4 ppb for the soy formula.

The concern is that the level in baby formula is equal to or exceeds that of drinking water standards, which doesn’t take into account an infant’s low body weight. The inorganic form is 500 times more toxic and inorganic.

Energy shots tested had about 84 ppb total arsenic that was 100 percent inorganic arsenic. The other two had 171 ppb total arsenic and 53 percent was organic.

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Out of 29 cereal bars tested, 22 were found to contain rice syrup or other rice ingredients as the first 4 ingredients, including

Jackson and his team say there is not enough regulation of arsenic in foods, highlighting an “urgent” need for regulatory limits.

According to the EPA, arsenic can cause “thickening and discoloration of the skin, stomach pain, nausea, vomiting; diarrhea; numbness in hands and feet; partial paralysis; and blindness. Arsenic has been linked to cancer of the bladder, lungs, skin, kidney, nasal passages, liver, and prostate.”

Small amounts are already ingested by the public each day in water, food and from the air. Exposure to low-levels of arsenic over long-periods can change skin color and cause corns and warts according to MedLine Plus. Acute poisoning can cause death.

Jackson said in a statement, “In the absence of regulations for levels of arsenic in food, I would certainly advise parents who are concerned about their children’s exposure to arsenic not to feed them formula where brown rice syrup is the main ingredient.”

The U.S. House of Representatives introduced legislation in February, asking the Food and Drug Administration to establish standards for arsenic and lead in fruit juices.

The finding shows organic brown rice syrup in infant formulas, cereal bars and energy shots can be added to the list of hidden sources of arsenic that exposes millions of adults and infants to health risks. Eating rice was suggested last year by the Dartmouth team to expose people in the U.S. to arsenic.

Citation:
Environmental Health Perspectives
“Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup”
Brian P. Jackson, Vivien F. Taylor, Margaret R. Karagas, Tracy Punshon, Kathryn L. Cottingham
February 16, 2012

Resources:
Dartmouth Now
“Dartmouth Researchers Evaluate Rice as a Source of Fetal Arsenic Exposure”

MedLinePlus
Arsenic

EPA
Arsenic in Drinking Water

Image credit: Wikimedia commons

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