Should you be worried about arsenic in rice-based baby food?

By Reece Steinberg

EDITOR’S DISCLAIMER: The following is meant as general information only. For health advice appropriate for your situation, consult your medical or dietary advisor. The Chronicle newsletter editorial team does not have the expertise to assess the accuracy of advice, but believes Reece is a knowledgeable and good guy who has taken reasonable steps to assess its accuracy and provides this information in good faith.

Dear Reece,

I stopped feeding my 16-month-old child rice-based baby cereal after reading about arsenic in rice-based baby food recently. Since then we’ve found Karma and gone mostly organic. My question is: what do I do with the unopened boxes of cereal I purchased or was given before the switch? I don’t want to throw them out, but it seems wrong to give them to a food bank or a friend, considering I wouldn’t feed them to my own child. 

Thanks,

Really Interested, Concerned, Ethical Dad

Rice Cereal with Toppings Photo by Alexandru Acea on Unsplash

Dear RICED,

The most recent studies on the carcinogen arsenic in rice-based baby cereals show that these cereals are the highest source of arsenic in children and adults (Gajdosechova et. al, 2020; González et. al, 2020; Rothenberg et. al, 2017), as well as a high source of methylmercury, a neurotoxin (Gajdosechova et. al, 2020). All these studies note that more research is warranted to understand if the level of these elements is actually harmful to human health, particularly young children’s health (Gajdosechova et. al, 2020; González et. al, 2020; Rothenberg et. al, 2017). 

Arsenic levels are high due to pesticides and fertilizers accumulated in the soil as well as naturally high levels in soil and water (Gajdosechova et. al, 2020), and have been found in rice grown in a variety of countries (González et. al, 2020), and in cereal sold in Canadian stores (Gajdosechova et. al, 2020). González et. al (2020) noted white and pre-cooked rice was significantly lower in arsenic levels.

This research doesn’t indicate a definite risk to young children consuming these products, but does point to enough evidence to be concerned. I can relate to the situation you’re facing regarding giving away the baby food. On the one hand, children regularly go hungry and those boxes of food might be really appreciated by someone. It’s possible that a parent in your community would otherwise purchase this same food so by giving it away, you wouldn’t necessarily be contributing to a child’s consumption of the product. I hate wasting food too. 

On the other hand, how would you feel if you gave this away and in a year or two learned that new research concluded this type of cereal was responsible for developmental issues, neurological issues or childhood cancers?

It does seem wrong to donate food products you wouldn’t feed your child to someone else’s child. One option would be to give away the food, noting the potential danger, though this could be placing an unnecessary burden on the recipient if they don’t have the financial means to acquire a safer food. Despite this, I think if you’re intent on giving it away, doing so along with this information is the only way to ethically do so, so that even if the recipient is willing to take that risk, or unable to afford to choose, they might opt for other grains when possible. This option is the only way to provide fully-informed options to the recipient, letting them decide what is right for their child. You might also consider giving or donating some non-rice based food as well.

It would certainly be less complicated and not wrong to just throw it out, though. 

Reece

Ask Reece is the e-Chronicle’s advice column by Karma working member Reece Steinberg, an academic librarian. Reece provides advice with input from a variety of sources, including anything from traditional etiquette columns to peer-reviewed scientific articles. He answers Karma member questions about dietary lifestyles, food science and fermentation, eating etiquette, and anything else food-related. Please email your questions to askreece@karmacoop.org.

Rothenberg, S. E., Jackson, B. P., Carly McCalla, G., Donohue, A., & Emmons, A. M. (2017). Co-exposure to methylmercury and inorganic arsenic in baby rice cereals and rice-containing teething biscuits. Environmental Research, 159, 639-647. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envres.2017.08.046

Gajdosechova, Z., Grinberg, P., Nadeau, K., Yang, L., Meija, J., Gürleyük, H., Wozniak, B. J., Feldmann, J., Savage, L., Deawtong, S., Kumkrong, P., Kubachka, K., & Mester, Z. (2020). CRM rapid response approach for the certification of arsenic species and toxic trace elements in baby cereal coarse rice flour certified reference material BARI-1. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 412(18), 4363-4373. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00216-020-02673-x

González, N., Calderón, J., Rúbies, A., Bosch, J., Timoner, I., Castell, V., . . . Domingo, J. L. (2020). Dietary exposure to total and inorganic arsenic via rice and rice-based products consumption. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 141, 111420. doi:10.1016/j.fct.2020.111420