Arsenic has been in the news a lot this month and for reasons most parents dread to think about: it’s in our baby’s first foods. Earlier this month the FDA announced they were re-examining the issue of arsenic in rice cereal, and a few days ago the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) released a study that showed the intake of rice snacks increase an infant’s exposure to arsenic.
It seems counterintuitive that the first foods we feed our children would have arsenic in them. Most of us are most familiar with arsenic as a poison, and in the right (or more correctly, wrong) dose it can be deadly. Understandably most parents want a quick answer to this issue: are kids receiving dangerous levels of arsenic through rice snacks? But the answer isn’t satisfying: probably not, but it depends.
Before we dig into the science of arsenic in rice foods I need to address the issue of rice cereal in baby bottles. To be clear, unless you’ve been instructed to do this by a pediatric gastroenterologist, putting infant cereal is not safe. This has nothing to do with arsenic levels. This practice is an old wives tale that claims the rice “fills up” the baby and according to the tale makes them less fussy. Unfortunately babies have been known to aspirate on the thickened cereal when sucked in through a bottle. Thick liquids like cereals and soups need to be eaten when the infant is upright and with a spoon.
Ok, on to the science!
Most of us know from our high school science classes that arsenic is a naturally occurring element. Many foods naturally include trace amounts of arsenic, including apples, pears and rice. Although fertilizers and pesticides used on these foods do contribute to higher levels of inorganic arsenic, the use of those pesticides is going down. As with most naturally toxic substances, the dose makes the poison, and long-term ingestion is the big issue.
The fact that there is trace arsenic in foods like rice, apples, and pears and that these are often the first foods that are introduced to infants, is purely coincidence. First foods are usually easy for babies to ‘chew’ and digest and do not contain more common allergens. Rice cereal has often been a popular first food because it fits this bill and is easy to prepare.
However, there is some concern over arsenic levels in rice as it is a popular ingredient in many first foods, such as rice cakes and puffed rice snacks. The concern is that as rice cereal and snacks have risen in popularity, babies are getting too much of their nutrition from rice-based foods, and thus their exposure to organic and inorganic arsenic may be too high as well. The concern comes not from a single source, but from multiple sources.
Families are busy, not everybody has the time or capacity to consistently plan out nutritious and diverse meals and snacks for their kids. I’m a mom and I work, I’ve had those weeks where there is so much going on that my family has relied too heavily on convenience foods like breakfast bars and pre-packaged snacks. But when a baby’s diet is consistently heavily constructed on rice-based foods, that’s when we start to be concerned with arsenic levels.
Just like with adults, any food should be eaten in moderation, and balanced with other food. It’s easy to become overly reliant on one food source, it would be no better to feed a baby sweet potatoes all day every day than it would rice cereal. So will one serving of rice cereal in the morning be OK – yes. Do you want to be serving it at every meal? No – not even if there was absolutely no arsenic in it. Kale is a healthy food, but if it was the only food an adult ate at every meal, they’d be a very unhealthy person.
So with that said, some parents are wondering if they should skip rice cereal altogether due to arsenic concerns. First to be clear, infant cereals aren’t “necessary” or required for nutrition. They are convenience and they’re a supplement. But just because it’s not required or it can be skipped doesn’t mean it’s unsafe. So long as your child’s diet it’s overly reliant on rice-based foods, it’s safe.
So if you’ve decided to skip rice cereal, what should be your baby’s first food? Most importantly, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends introducing solid food after six months of age. After that, there’s no hard and fast rule about what order traditional first foods should be introduced to babies. There are lots of “old wives tales” about which foods to introduce when, but there isn’t a lot of solid science to support the timing of introducing one food before another.
You can buy commercially prepared baby food (the kind that come in jars or pouches), or you can do what I did most of the time, which was use finely diced or mashed table food (I did use some jarred baby foods, there’s nothing wrong with them). Table foods can be pureed or chopped at home and then textures can vary as the baby matures. It can save money, and let’s be honest, much of those first meals are going to wind up everywhere but their mouths, so save your cash for their college fund.
First foods should be considered a “practice food” and offer an opportunity to the tastes and textures of other foods and the social aspects of eating – sitting at a table, using a spoon and cup, some “manners” (e.g. when food starts getting thrown around the room, meal time’s over).