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Scientists Find Arsenic in Baby Formula Sweetener

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Jessica Berman

Scientists are warning parents to avoid some infant formulas that may contain high levels of arsenic, an extremely poisonous metallic element that has been shown to cause cancer.  The hazardous baby formulas are sweetened with arsenic-containing organic brown rice syrup, which some manufacturers are starting to use in place of high fructose corn syrup or other sweeteners.

Many processed food products today are sweetened with high fructose corn syrup.  But concerns that corn syrup might be contributing to obesity has led many food manufacturers to turn to organic brown rice syrup, believing it to be a healthier alternative to the high fructose corn syrup.  

Now, researchers say that brown rice syrup may be an unintended source of arsenic, a highly toxic metallic element that’s been shown to increase the risk of cancer when present in drinking water.

A researcher at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences at Dartmouth University in New Hampshire, Brian Jackson, says scientists were curious about the amount of arsenic in foods consumed by babies.

“Because of their low body weight, if they are exposed to arsenic, then they are exposed to a disproportionately high exposure rate on a high kilogram body weight basis,” Jackson said.

Jackson, who led the study, and colleagues randomly purchased more than a dozen baby formulas to test them for the presence of arsenic. He says almost all the formulas contained very low or trace amounts of arsenic, including those that had rice starch.

“And then I selected two other formulas that I found in a local supermarket, brought those back to the lab, tested them and they turned out to be 20 to 30 times higher than any of the other formulas that we tested. So when we get an anomalous result like that, we retested this and got the same results again.  And at that point I turned a jar around and looked at the label and the first ingredients in that label were organic brown rice syrup,” Jackson said.

Researchers found high levels of inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form, in soy based formula.

Jackson explains that growing rice needs a mineral in soil called silica.  But Jackson says arsenic is chemically a lot like silica, and the growing rice plant takes up both silica as well as arsenic, which is also in the ground. When the rice is fermented to make organic rice syrup, Jackson says the arsenic dissolves easily in the watery brew and becomes part of the syrup.

For this reason, Jackson urges parents to read the label on baby food products and to think twice before purchasing infant foods that contain organic rice syrup.

“I would recommend that.  Obviously the amount of arsenic --  it varies in rice depending upon the cultivar of rice, where the rice is grown -- so you are going to get that same variation in brown rice syrups.  It’s true that rice as a grain takes up more arsenic than other grains,” Jackson said.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a statement saying it is not aware of any baby formulas that contain organic brown rice syrup.  An agency spokeswoman said FDA regulators are studying aresenic in all rice and rice products and could issue recalls after the report is completed later this year.

An article on arsenic concentrations in baby food and other products is published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

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