Rice cereal and arsenic

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For anyone feeding their baby rice cereal, this is a headline that you don’t ever want to read. If your baby has been fed cereal in the past, this story is just as alarming. I think of rat poisoning when I think of arsenic. Or someone slipping it into a cup of tea or cocktail in an old spy movie where the heroine is trying to kill her husband so she can be with her adulterous lover – not in a bowl of infant cereal recommended by Health Canada to feed your baby.

While this headline has a new spin on it (European standards and levels), arsenic in infant rice cereal or rice isn’t a new concern. In 2017, an investigation by Healthy Babies Bright Futures reported the following findings:

  • There is 6x more arsenic in infant rice cereals than other types of infant cereals (including oatmeal and multi-grain).
  • Infant rice cereals brands tested that had arsenic in them: Gerber, Earth’s Best, BeechNut, BioKinetics, HappyBABY, and Healthy Times (which is organic)
  • The non-rice and multi grain cereals of the same brands had a much lower level of arsenic.

The new information that has come through CBC’s Marketplace brings the conversation to the forefront once again. While it’s making your head spin, I’m grateful for another chance to discuss this issue because there is no safe level of arsenic for your baby, or for you.

Why is arsenic in rice?

Rice is a grain that takes up more arsenic from the soil than any other. Organic or not, rice has arsenic in it at varying levels, depending on what part of the world it’s grown in.

Is there a safer or better rice?

ConsumerReports.org says: “Don’t buy white rice grown in the Southeastern United States. Rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri and Texas had higher levels of total arsenic.” They go on to say “Choose rice grown in California and imported basmati and jasmine rices (Pakistan and India). These may have lower arsenic levels.”

In the CBC.ca article, they call out two Canadian products with the highest levels of arsenic. In fact, they couldn’t even be sold in Europe by European standards:

“PC Organics Whole Grain Puffs and Baby Gourmet Creamy Brown Rice cereal both had levels over what would be permissible in Europe. None of the other products tested surpassed the European limits. PC Organics Whole Grain Puffs had on average 170 parts per billion (ppb) of inorganic arsenic, according to the test results of multiple samples, while Baby Gourmet Creamy Brown Rice Cereal had on average 125 ppb of inorganic arsenic.”

The standards in Europe don’t allow more than 100 ppb of arsenic in a food.

You might wonder, “What do European standards have to do with us in Canada?” Well, we only have standards for arsenic levels in water, not in infant cereal – or in any cereal for that matter. It would be beneficial for Canada to adopt the European standard on this, and fast.

How much is safe to eat?

Again, CBC.ca says, “According to the European Commission, dietary exposure to inorganic arsenic for children under the age of three, including from rice-based foods, is estimated to be ‘about two- to three-fold that of adults.’” In certain cultures and countries, rice is a dietary staple that’s consumed daily, even at multiple meals.

Reduce the arsenic risk

In this case, buying organic doesn’t help. The arsenic is in the soil and has likely been there for a while. Yes, farming methods, sprays and pesticides have contributed to the arsenic in the soil, but buying organic isn’t better here.

Offering oatmeal to your baby and family, is a much safer option. Amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, farro, polenta (corn) and millet are excellent alternatives to rice and provide many nutrients, including fibre and protein.

Here are two ways to cook rice to reduce arsenic levels:

  1. Rinsing the rice thoroughly with filtered water before cooking starts to eliminate some contaminants. Rinse up to six times. When cooking rice, use a ratio of 6 cups of water to 1 cup of rice and once cooked, drain the excess water. Some of the nutritional value could be lost, but it will reduce the arsenic level.
  2. Soak your rice overnight in more than double the amount of water to rice. Then throw out that water while straining and rinsing the rice before cooking. Soaking grains, beans and lentils before cooking is a much healthier way of eating, so this has a doubly beneficial effect.

For the moment, you could be better off with other grains and leave rice out of the diet. If you’ve been giving rice cereal up until now, stop and increase other colourful produce immediately. Give egg yolks regularly as they can help to clear arsenic from the body and offer iron at the same time.

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