Whenever I think of arsenic, an old movie, "Arsenic and Old Lace," comes to mind. In this famous movie, two old ladies doctor refreshments with arsenic to kill off lonely old men. (This creepy plot, of course, comes with many laughs at the antics of Cary Grant.) Arsenic poisoning is serious. While we know that high amounts cause death, low exposure can still cause many health issues and problems. Besides the obvious and more well-known problems caused by arsenic poisoning, there are potential problems for those exposed to arsenic over a long period of time. For example, one study found that low-grade, long-term exposure to arsenic from well water caused a deficiency in vitamin A. Adequate amounts of vitamin A are crucial for pregnant women and children, but also necessary for the well-being of adults.
There is some discussion about very low amounts of arsenic that could have a beneficial effect on human health, but everyone agrees that once the ppb (parts per billion) crosses a certain line, it becomes dangerous. So it is an unfortunate situation to find that many of our food items made with rice can contain fairly high amounts of arsenic. Even more disturbing is that some baby formulas contain quite high amounts. Since formula is a baby's mainstay nourishment, and because it could be made with water already containing some arsenic, this could have a serious impact on their health.
Certain plants are prone to "take up" certain minerals or heavy metals. For example, the tea plant is prone to take up fluoride. Rice is prone to take up arsenic, so if it is grown in soil that contains higher amounts of arsenic, it will also contain higher amounts of arsenic. For that reason, where the rice is grown will greatly affect how much arsenic it contains. In areas that used arsenic-based pesticides in the past, current rice crops contain more arsenic. In one study, one organic brown rice grown in California ranked lowest in arsenic levels. Organic rice, however, can contain arsenic. It all depends on how much arsenic is present in the soil. Brown rice syrup, a concentrated rice product, is often used as an alternative sweetener in organic baked goods, bars, cereals, and baby or toddler formulas. Unfortunately, it could be adding higher amounts of arsenic to organic products.
The safety limit for water, which can also contain arsenic, is 10 ppb (parts per billion). One milk-based infant formula tested at 8.6 ppb, and a soy-based infant formula came in at 21.4 ppb. It’s also noteworthy that apple juice, a common toddler beverage, was also found to be high in arsenic.
For me, this is just one more reason to avoid soy-based formulas. I don’t think that a high in soy diet is a good idea for anyone, but especially not infants. (For more information, visit and browse this page for information.) But even the organic dairy based formula had too much arsenic, according to the researchers.
Better regulations on arsenic levels in foods, especially those marketed for children or infants, seems like a good idea. Meanwhile, avoiding packaged foods, including organic ones, that contain high amounts of brown rice syrup wouldn't hurt.
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