FDA Wants Manufacturers to Lower Arsenic Levels in Infant Rice Cereals
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FDA Wants Manufacturers to Lower Arsenic Levels in Infant Rice Cereals

April 4, 2016

Citing growing research of developmental and cancer risks, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is asking the makers of infant rice cereals to lower the amount of inorganic arsenic found in their products.

Most cereal makers are either under or close to the proposed 100 parts per billion limit, which the FDA says is a good starting point as infants are more vulnerable to the long term effects of arsenic.

Some level of arsenic is impossible to escape. It's an element found in our soil, air and water, and is absorbed by plants as they grow. Some plants, like rice, absorb more arsenic than others. Arsenic can either be organic or inorganic, but inorganic is considered more toxic.

Rice cereals are one of the first solid foods that parents give to their infants and relative to their body weight, infants consume about three times more rice than adults. According to the FDA, data show that, relative to their weight, people consume the most rice at eight months of age because these rice cereals are commonly the centerpiece of an infant's diet.

The FDA analyzed a growing body of scientific studies linking adverse pregnancy outcomes to intake of relatively high levels of inorganic arsenic during pregnancy. Exposure may result in a child's decreased performance on certain development tests that measure learning.

While it is unknown if the proposed limit is low enough, it's definitely a step in the right direction, Margaret Karagas said in a New York Times wire story. Karagas is the chairwoman of the epidemiology department at Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth.

Many food manufacturers are already at or near the target limit, leading the FDA to believe this should be a relatively easy goal to hit. During testing, 47 percent of 76 samples already meet the proposed limit. Overall, 78 percent were either at or below 110 parts per billion.

The public can comment on the proposed limit and the risk assessment for the next 90 days and manufactures can choose to carry out the recommendations before the limit becomes final.

What Can Parents Do?

The FDA isn't telling parents to stop feeding their children rice-based cereals. They do offer other kinds of nutrients that are good for infant growth. The agency does, however, suggest adding a variety of grains to a child's diet. Other fortified cereals, like oat, barley and multigrain, offer the same nutrients and have lower arsenic levels. The same variety is suggested for pregnant women.

When cooking rice at home, studies find that by adding more water than the recipe calls for – generally six to 10 parts water to one part rice, instead of two to one – and then draining that excess water, you can reduce the inorganic arsenic content from 40 to 60 percent. But, there's a tradeoff, as this method might also remove some key nutrients.