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Arsenic, Baby Formula and Energy Bars. What Do They Have in Common?

Posted Feb 17 2012 12:29pm

The search for healthy, organic products just got more confusing. A study of organic brown rice syrup just concluded that products containing this sweetener are a source for the toxin arsenic.

Organic brown rice syrup is used in organic and gluten-free foods as an alternative to high fructose corn syrup . It’s made by steeping brown rice with a special enzyme preparation where the whole brown rice grains are converted to a smooth-flavored, sweet liquid extract. This causes the syrup to dissolve into your bloodstream easily, which helps to control blood sugar spikes.

However, eating foods that contain this “sweet liquid” as a main ingredient could expose you to more arsenic than the U.S. government allows in drinking water. The problem is the rice and how arsenic gets into it.

Arsenic and Rice

Arsenic is both colorless and tasteless; it’s naturally present in the environment and easily dissolves in water, but once it gets in the soil, it can stay there for years. Rice is particularly vulnerable to contamination with arsenic because it is grown in water. Arsenic gets into the rice and is stored in the darker outer layer call the germ. Brown rice contains higher levels of arsenic than white rice because the outer layers are stripped from white rice in processing. But leaving the outer layers intact is actually what makes brown rice a healthier alternative than white rice.

Long term exposure to arsenic in drinking water has been linked to cancers of the bladder, liver, skin, prostate and lungs, along with increased risk for heart disease . Arsenic exposure in young children has been linked to lower IQs and reduced brain function.

Study Results

Researchers at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire tested 17 brands of baby formulas, 29 cereal bars and three energy shots and three organic brown rice syrups. Products that did not list organic brown rice syrup as the main ingredient were low in arsenic levels. Most of the arsenic was detected in the bars and energy bars and was the inorganic kind, believed to be the most toxic.

As reported by, “There’s been quite a lot of press on arsenic in rice in the past six years, but less so on the rice products,” says researcher Brian P. Jackson, PhD, director of trace metal analysis at Dartmouth College in Hanover, N.H. He went on to say that as Americans consume more rice-containing foods, they’re unknowingly ingesting more arsenic, he cautioned. He pointed out that they’re buying more organic packaged foods, more gluten-free products made from rice instead of wheat flour, and choosing foods sweetened with organic brown rice syrup because of the buzz they’ve heard linking high-fructose corn syrup and obesity.

Organic  Foods are Not Always Safest

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Concerns for You

If you eat foods that contain organic brown rice syrup every once in a while, you probably don’t have anything to worry about, since your body can clear a single, small dose of arsenic in a few days. But if you are an athlete or fitness enthusiast and consume energy bars or gels regularly, you could have issues.

In addition, if you are giving your baby organic formula, you also have need to be concerned. Jackson suggests that parents hold off on feeding babies and toddlers formula that contains brown rice syrup as a sweetener until arsenic levels in products are regulated.

“There’s no perfect advice,” said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a consumer advocacy group in Washington, D.C.Lovera. “There’s no one thing people can do.” But she said, the surprising presence of arsenic in packaged foods give people a chance to ask themselves, “How many foods do I need to eat that are processed with ingredients I don’t really know that much about?”

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