A sweetener used in powdered baby formula and some organic and gluten-free foods may contain dangerously high levels of arsenic, researchers reported today.
Environmental chemist Brian P. Jackson, who is the director of the Trace Element Analysis Core Facility at Dartmouth University, said that his team found organic baby formula whose main ingredient was brown rice syrup had arsenic levels six times higher than what the EPA considers safe for drinking water. According to the study, which was published Thursday in the journal "Environmental Health Perspectives," the researchers also found high arsenic levels in some organic foods sweetened with brown rice syrup, including cereal bars, energy bars, and gel energy "shots" that athletes slurp down after working out.
"The baby formula findings are concerning," Jackson said. The risk of arsenic poisoning from eating a cereal bar or an energy shot once in a while are low, he pointed out, but for babies and for people who are on gluten-free diets, arsenic poisoning could be a concern.
"All we can fall back on is what we know about exposure through drinking water," Jackson said. "Moms should know that these rice-based formulas may contain arsenic and should limit exposure. Look at the ingredients when you purchase formula."
Samples for the study -- 17 kinds of baby formula, 29 cereal bars, and three energy shots -- had been purchased from grocery stores in the Hanover, N.H., area. The report did not say which brands were tested.
Organic arsenic is found naturally in the soil, but a more dangerous kind of the chemical, known as inorganic arsenic, was widely used in pesticides for years before the EPA banned it in 2009. Inorganic arsenic has been linked to lung, bladder, and liver cancer, and exposure to arsenic can affect brain function over time.
Certain crops absorb more arsenic than others. Rice "takes up more arsenic than all the other grains," Jackson says, and brown rice is higher in arsenic than white rice. (When white rice is processed, the outer hull of the grain is removed; though arsenic is found inside the grain itself, inorganic arsenic is usually contained in the outer layer.)
Baby formulas made with rice starch had very low levels of arsenic, but ones made with brown rice syrup were high. The U.S. currently does not regulate the amount of arsenic in food, though after arsenic was found in some brands of apple juice the FDA set a "level of concern" of 23 parts per billion for fruit juices. The EPA standard for arsenic in drinking water is 10 parts per billion.
Brown rice syrup is frequently used as a "healthy" alternative to high-fructose corn syrup and can be found in foods that consumers don't think of as rice-based and in products that are touted as "healthy," "all natural," and "organic."
"Even if you were an educated consumer, some products might just creep under the radar," Jackson told ABC News.
Still, some dietitians warned consumers to take Jackson's study with a grain of salt.
"I would encourage consumers to not worry about this study, but to use it as a reminder that foods that grow in soil are growing with a wide variety of chemicals, both those found naturally in the soil and those that may be there from use of chemicals to foster growth," Connie Diekman, director of university nutrition at Washington University in St. Louis, told HealthDay News. "Whether organic foods contain more arsenic, or other minerals, than conventional foods is hard to estimate, but this study does remind us that organic is not necessarily equal with healthier/better for you/safe from harm."