This week the FDA released a consumer update called Seven Things Pregnant Women and Parents Need to Know About Arsenic in Rice and Rice Cereal. While many parents were caught off guard by the new recommendations, I was lucky enough to be talking to pediatricians, PhDs, registered dietitians, clinical professors, and even the 18th United States Surgeon General about what the guidance actually meant for families.
That’s because I work for the International Food Information Council Foundation (aka FoodInsight.org). We’re a nonprofit educational foundation and receive funding from companies that support our mission, other foundations and associations, government grants, and individual donors. But, as the phone calls and texts from friends and family members can attest, not everybody gets the benefit of having teams of experts at their fingertips to put scary headlines in context. In response to the crazy headline frenzy, I wanted to pitch in here at The Scientific Parent with what I’ve learned, and help answer questions about the FDA announcement:
Isn’t arsenic in rat poison? Why would any level of it be ‘safe’ to feed to my baby?
I completely understand why arsenic sounds so scary- I mean, it’s what elderly aunts used to poison Cary Grant (ok, IMDB reveals I’m misremembering this plot, but the point stands). Arsenic is actually a naturally occurring metal found in soil and water, and it’s a classic example of ‘the dose makes the poison.’ For example, too much Vitamin D (40,000 IU/day everyday for 3 months or more) can cause hypercalcemia which can create kidney stones and interfere with critical body functions. But getting the right amount of Vitamin D doesn’t put you at risk for these symptoms at all. Sense About Science also has a great example – pears contain formaldehyde, but in such a small amount as you would consume in a pear, it wouldn’t harm you.
That’s all to say that with trace amounts of arsenic found in rice and other foods, it really is all about the level of exposure. Arsenic isn’t avoidable; as Dr. Julie Jones, Distinguished Scholar and Professor Emeritus on Foods and Nutrition at St. Catherine University, said “it’s found in vegetables, fruit, rice, grains, fish and anything made from them like juices, beer, and wine. […] If you cut arsenic from your diet, you’ll die of starvation.” Luckily, it doesn’t need to be totally avoidable for you to keep your family safe and healthy.
Why is this issue just being addressed now?
The FDA has been testing for total amounts of arsenic found in food, including rice, through its Total Diet Study program. About five years ago, new scientific methods were developed to test organic versus inorganic arsenic, and so the FDA expanded its testing. (Inorganic/organic isn’t related to growing methods- both types occur naturally, and inorganic arsenic is the type that, in large amounts, causes adverse health impacts).
The FDA then released a broad set of test data for levels of inorganic arsenic in rice foods in 2013. What was released last week was another, deeper risk assessment than the one in 2013. The FDA has also made clear that their current recommendations are out of an abundance of caution and prudence, and not due to any kind of emergency scenario or health threat.
How would I know if my infant is getting too much arsenic? If I’ve fed them rice cereal is there a chance they’ve been permanently damaged or poisoned by it?
The FDA’s guidance is totally consistent with existing guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics: feed your baby iron-fortified cereals, since iron prevents anemia and is essential for healthy movement of oxygen through the body; mix up rice cereal with other cereals like oat, barley, and multigrain; and feed toddlers a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of grains.
Adding lots of variety in your kids’ diets is a great idea for so many reasons- it gets a more diverse set of vitamins into the mix, it helps kids develop their taste and texture experiences.
This means there are no changes needed to your infant’s diet based on the recent arsenic data, nor have they been permanently damaged or poisoning by it by following AAP (and likely your own pediatrician’s) food guidelines. The biggest risk factors associated with our diets are often the most obvious – almost nobody is getting an ideal amount of vegetables – so focusing just on rice doesn’t make much sense. Take this opportunity to add variety throughout your diet and amp up your protein, veggies, and all kinds of whole grains.
Can arsenic build up in the body like lead?
Nope. Scientists agree that the body has a way of processing trace amounts of inorganic arsenic ingested through food and water and converting it to organic arsenic, which is of less concern. Ultimately, the majority of ingested arsenic is rapidly excreted in your urine within a few days. It does not accumulate in the body.
Is this a problem only with rice that originates in China? Is rice grown elsewhere safe?
Arsenic is a metal that’s found naturally in soil and water, so the FDA’s guidance isn’t about certain imports or Chinese rice- it’s about mitigating risks from rice grown anywhere. The level of arsenic can vary based on the soil type and the product, but you don’t need to specifically avoid any imported and regulated product for this reason – they’re all safe when they’re eaten in a diet with variety. For instance, brown rice has slightly higher levels of arsenic than white rice, but, since brown rice is a whole grain, its overall health benefits are much greater. Dr. Julie Jones emphasized that whole grains like brown rice offer benefits in combating risks of heart disease, gastrointestinal cancer, and diabetes. Those benefits actually counteract any small risks that would come from trace amounts of arsenic.
What does this mean for your kids?
As Dr. Claire Chehrazi, pediatrician and mom, said “I have served rice foods to my son since he was about 5 months old and continue to do so, especially given the health benefits of whole grains like brown rice. I counsel parents to educate themselves so that they can make decisions they’re comfortable with, and I do encourage rice, especially whole grain brown rice, as part of a healthy and balanced diet.” As previously mentioned, iron-fortified cereals are a must, including rice cereal, and whole grains like brown rice are a great addition to your diet. Combine them with a variety of grains and grain cereals.