A Bitter Sweetener in Baby Formula

New data from Dartmouth College has found elevated levels of arsenic in foods and infant formula that are sweetened with rice syrup. The data demonstrate the gaping holes in the regulation of our food supply, which is not a new story. But there is a new twist here. Rather than the problem being imports from other countries (e.g. see my recent blogs on arsenic in apple juice from China; fungicide in orange juice from Brazil) in this case, it's the domestic product that is more contaminated. Why should rice raised in the U.S. be the problem? Well cotton on to this one.

Major portions of the U.S. cotton belt have been converted over to rice production, so much so that the U.S. south produces 12 percent of all rice on the planet. The majority of rice consumed in the U.S. is domestic. Cotton fields historically received high doses of arsenic-based pesticide and this arsenic is still sitting in the topsoil. When you flood fields, creating rice paddies, the arsenic is mobilized and goes right into the crop. The good news is that it's toxic to rice, causing a syndrome called straighthead disease. That should have been enough to kill the concept, especially since who would want to produce rice with high levels of arsenic, a well known nerve poison and carcinogen. Well, apparently our own U.S. Dept of Agriculture would want to. Their research into rice cultivars that are resistant to arsenic has been a huge commercial success in the southern heartland. They are still doing research to improve rice production in high arsenic soils. To be fair, USDA is also doing research to try to find cultivars that don't become so highly contaminated by arsenic. But this research is not protecting the American public from the bad idea of growing rice on old cotton fields. This is tinkering with the U.S. food supply to maximize profit with minimal thought given to food safety. Its sister agency, FDA, does not even have safety standards for arsenic in rice.

Fortunately, the Dartmouth research points out the dangers of growing arsenic-resistant rice. In this case, they tested products containing organic brown rice syrup, a processed sweetener derived from rice. There is obviously something wrong with the organic label if you can call something grown on high arsenic soils organic. But aside from that, the compounding of mistakes is mind-numbing. Taking a crop high in arsenic and concentrating it down into a syrup and then putting that into baby formula sounds like a terrorist plot on a TV drama. Unfortunately, it's actually happening. And it's even more outrageous when considering that simple sugars and empty calories are a risk for diabetes. This effect is now combined with arsenic, a chemical that can decrease pancreatic function and is linked to diabetes.

The Dartmouth research found two brands of infant formula that contains the rice-based sweetener. The inorganic arsenic concentration in these brands was double the federal drinking water limit and five times higher when you add in the methyl forms of arsenic that also have some toxicity. And the daily dose per body weight for an infant on this formula would be 10 times higher than what USEPA's reference dose for arsenic dictates is safe.

The take home messages at this point are:

Parents of infants: avoid formulas that contain rice syrup; apparently most don't, but read the label. The two brands Dartmouth studied with high arsenic are Baby's Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby's Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula, both made by Nature's One.

Everyone else: 1) Rice syrup -- minimize consumption until we know more; a little is no big deal and its not in that many things, but if its in the things you like (e.g., higher end snack bars) you will want to moderate. Since high fructose corn syrup has its question marks, I'd head in the direction of honey or plain old sugar. If you stay away from refined highly sweetened foods to start with you are way ahead of the game. 2) Rice -- imported rice is lower in arsenic; look for whole grain (brown) basmati or jasmine rice, which come from India and Thailand, respectively.

FDA: do more testing, especially of baby rice cereal; as baby's first solid food, its urgent that we get arsenic data on rice cereal from the U.S.