Infant rice cereals are popular with parents because they are affordable, easy to digest, and unlikely to cause allergic reactions. Infants typically begin eating cereals when they are between 4 and 6 months old.
But, rice absorbs more arsenic from soil and water than other grains used for infant cereals; about 10 times more. Consequently, the level of arsenic in infant rice cereals is an ongoing concern among researchers and some public health advocates. Some are comparing the danger from arsenic with the dangers of children’s exposure to lead.
A new report by activist health researchers credits cereal makers for limiting arsenic levels in infant rice cereals since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s most recent study, which was for 2013-14.
Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), an alliance of scientists, nonprofits and donors, published the report. It found 85 ppb (parts per billion) of arsenic, on average in rice cereals tested in 2016-17. That’s about a 21 percent improvement over FDA’s 2013-14 average of 103 ppb.
But HBBF says arsenic in nine favorite brands of infant rice cereal is still too high in light of “growing science on arsenic’ toxicity at low levels…” Arsenic toxicity, according to the new report, causes lung, bladder and skin cancer. It also retards neurodevelopment of children exposed in utero or during the first few years of life.
The findings include an analysis by Abt Associates, an economic and toxicology research group, that shows rice-based foods are resulting in a loss of 9.2 million IQ points among 0- to 6-year-old children. Lower IQs will decrease lifetime wages for those children when they are adults, costing the United States an estimated $12 billion to $18 billion annually, according to the report.
The FDA should have already taken high-arsenic cereals off store shelves, according to HBBF.
“It hasn’t happened,” the report says. “FDA is, in a word, stalled. More than a year after issuing its 2016 draft guidance to cereal makers — the culmination of four years of assessment — FDA is falling short of protecting infants.”
HBBF says FDA has neither set a final limit for arsenic in rice cereal nor finalized the cap proposed in the draft guidance.
Arsenic levels in drinking water are strictly regulated, but there are no limits for infant rice cereal.
The new report is described as “parent-friendly” because it reviews 105 kinds of infant cereal showing non-rice and multi-grain cereals that contain as much as 84 percent less arsenic than leading brands of infant rice cereals. It says these alternatives are “reliable and affordable.”
While calling upon FDA to “act immediately to set an enforceable, health-based limit for arsenic in infant rice cereal and other rice-based foods, the report also called upon cereal makers to implement changes.
“We found no evidence to suggest that any brand has reduced arsenic levels in rice cereal to amounts comparable to those found in other types of cereal, despite at least five years of significant public attention to the issue that has included widespread consumer alerts and proposed federal action level,” according to the report.
The study — funded by the Forsythia and Passport Foundations and The John Merck Fund — warns parents to avoid rice-only infant cereals entirely. “Non-rice and multi-grain alternatives have lower arsenic contamination, and are a healthier choice,” the nonprofit organization recommends.
“Rice has higher levels of inorganic arsenic than other foods, in part because as rice plants grow, the plant and grain tend to absorb arsenic more readily than other food crops,” according to the FDA website.
“In April 2016, the FDA proposed an action level, or limit, of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. This level, which is based on the FDA’s assessment of a large body of scientific information, seeks to reduce infant exposure to inorganic arsenic. The agency also has developed advice on rice consumption for pregnant women and the caregivers of infants,” according to the FDA website.