What we feed our babies matters. No question one delightful and soulful part of raising our babies is introducing the world of solid food. I mean really, it’s hard to describe a competing parenting moment with feeding our children healthy food, at any age. For decades, rice cereal as a first food seemed to make sense but major groups reporting out on only feeding rice with caution. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently proposed new limits for inorganic arsenic in rice cereals (think: potentially cancer causing toxin that is increasingly known to cause harm early in life). Many families start their transition from breastmilk/formula to solid foods by adding in rice cereal. Doing so is convenient, makes for great consistency, but rice cereal is a leading source of exposure to the toxin. Arsenic is an abundant element in the earth’s crust, coming in two forms (organic, inorganic), the inorganic form being tied to bad health outcomes. The reason rice has more arsenic compared with other foods is how rice is grown (in watery fields) and its unique tendency as a crop to absorb the arsenic while growing. Here’s what the World Health Organization (WHO) says about inorganic arsenic:
- Arsenic is naturally present at high levels in the groundwater of a number of countries.
- Arsenic is highly toxic in its inorganic form.
- Contaminated water used for drinking, food preparation and irrigation of food crops poses the greatest threat to public health from arsenic.
- Long-term exposure to arsenic from drinking-water and food can cause cancer and skin lesions. It has also been associated with developmental effects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity and diabetes.
- The most important action in affected communities is the prevention of further exposure to arsenic by provision of a safe water supply.
Why are infants particularly vulnerable to arsenic in rice? The FDA says: “relative to body weight, rice intake for infants is about three times greater than for adults.” In their evaluation, they tested 76 different rice cereals and found that 1/2 exceeded the inorganic arsenic limit. Some companies and products are advertising for safety — for example Gerber rice cereal manufacturers announced that their products already meet the FDA’s proposed limits but it will be with time that the food source is changed for good in all products packaged and marketed for babies.
Knowledge about what exactly rice cereal does to babies and their developing bodies continues to unfold but infancy is a time of profound growth and development. Also a time we really want to limit toxins that could change risks. Researchers in JAMA Pediatrics explain:
“Emerging epidemiologic evidence suggests that Arsenic exposure in utero and during early life may be associated with adverse health effects on fetal growth and on infant and child immune and neurodevelopmental outcomes, even at the relatively low levels of exposure common in the United States.”
So, we know arsenic is bad for developing babies, we know the main source is rice cereal and rice snacks, so it makes sense to know more about infants absorption and levels. Fortunately the amount of arsenic a baby has ingested can be measured by looking at their urinary excretion of the toxin. JAMA Pediatrics recently published a study which found that urinary arsenic concentrations were nearly double for those who ate rice cereal and rice snacks compared with infants who ate no rice. Of the 759 infants studied, 80% were introduced rice cereal within the first year of life. Proof that how babies eat rice products really changes risk.
The idea that brown rice is better/healthier than white rice in this circumstance doesn’t hold true. Arsenic can even be found at higher levels in brown rice. Organically grown rice isn’t typically safer, arsenic-wise, either.
How To Reduce Arsenic Exposures In Babies And Children
- Have your water checked for arsenic if you have well water or a private water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) mandates arsenic levels in public water. But if you have any questions or concerns about public water, call your water company and ask about report data.
- Limit rice cereal and rice snacks for infants and young children — think of it as a side dish for your baby every once and a while, not a main course! Consider minimizing rice in your diet, too. But know, it’s not just rice that provides arsenic exposure in our lives. Fruits, veggies, and juices have inorganic arsenic contamination as well, but Consumer Reports data compared people who ate rice to those who didn’t partially because previous studies (in Europe) have found that 1/2 of inorganic arsenic we consume may come from the rice in cereals we eat as well. Consumer Reports found significant differences–those who ate rice in the 24 hours prior to testing had 44% more arsenic than those who didn’t. Because rice is often grown in fields with a history of pesticide use, it may carry higher levels of arsenic than other foods due to its absorption of the water during its growing cycle. Some tests have found that brown rice has more arsenic than white rice, too (arsenic may concentrate in the outer brown hull). When serving and eating rice, rinse it with water first before cooking. When cooking rice use lots of water (6-10 cups of water for every 1 cup of rice).
- Rice doesn’t need to be baby’s first food! Significant levels of arsenic were found in infant rice cereal, even when organic. Start with fruit or veggies as baby’s first food and/or consider other cereals as an alternative (oat, barley, multigrain). Cereal is not a “must eat” food. If you’re breastfeeding and concerned about iron needs in your baby after 4-6 months of age, talk with your pediatrician, family practitioner, or ARNP about options for optimizing iron in your baby’s diet (starting foods with meats earlier, iron supplements, etc).
- Read the labels of food you eat. Minimize foods with brown rice syrup and rice when you can. Here is Consumer Reports’ recommendations for rice consumption.
- Don’t choose rice milk for children under age 5 years of age. Here’s a nice pediatrician-authored blog post about cow’s milk alternatives.
- Eat a well-balanced diet for good nutrition and to minimize potential adverse consequences from consuming an excess of any one food.
- Feed your baby iron-fortified cereals to be sure she or he is receiving enough of this important nutrient.
- Rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source of nutrients for your baby, but it shouldn’t be the only source, and does not need to be the first source. Other fortified infant cereals include oat, barley and multi-grain.
- For toddlers, provide a well-balanced diet, which includes a variety of grains.
- Pregnant women should consume a variety of foods, including varied grains (such as wheat, oats, and barley), for good nutrition.
- Cooking rice in excess water (from six to 10 parts water to one part rice), and draining the excess water, can reduce from 40 to 60 percent of the inorganic arsenic content, depending on the type of rice – although this method may also remove some key nutrients.