Health & wellness

Arsenic hidden in baby formula, cereal bars, and energy shots?

First arsenic was found in apple juice, then brown in organic baby formula? Yes, according to a Darmouth College study which found that baby formulas, cereal bars, and energy shots that contain brown rice syrup have high levels of arsenic -- well above the limits set by the Environmental Protection Agency for drinking water.

High levels of arsenic exposure can raise a person’s risk for cancer and heart disease, and young children who ingest too much arsenic may suffer lower IQs and poorer intellectual function.

The research, published online today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, found that products containing organic brown rice syrup -- used as a sweetener to replace high fructose corn syrup -- contained up to six times the EPA safe drinking water limit for arsenic. That’s based on arsenic measurements of 17 infant formulas, 29 cereal bars, and 3 energy shots that were purchased from local stores in Hanover, New Hampshire.


The researchers found that the two baby formulas that contained brown rice syrup had arsenic levels that were far above the EPA standard for drinking water and more than 20 times greater than each of the 15 formulas that didn’t contain brown rice syrup. These products were Baby’s Only Organic Dairy Toddler Formula and Baby’s Only Organic Soy Toddler Formula, both made by Nature’s One.

Get The Weekender in your inbox:
The Globe's top picks for what to see and do each weekend, in Boston and beyond.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Arsenic levels in the two formulas were also higher than the World Health Orgnanization’s “maximum tolerable daily intake” standard for babies, who are particularly vulnerable to arsenic’s neurological effects because of their small size and developing brain.

Nature’s One responded in this statement that they use “a qualified, world renowned, third-party, independent lab to test arsenic levels in their organic brown rice syrup. Their testing results report undetectable amounts of arsenic at laboratory testing limits.” The company added that it “selected organic brown rice syrup as its carbohydrate source due to its high nutritional qualities.”

Beyond formula, the Dartmouth researchers also found that about half of all cereal bars -- ones they tested as well as dozens of others that they surveyed on the web -- contain organic rice syrup or other rice ingredients and that these had far higher levels of arsenic than those without any rice products.

“There are currently no US regulations applicable to As [arsenic] in food,” write the study authors, “but our findings suggest that the organic brown rice syrup products we evaluated may introduce significant concentrations of Asi [inorganic arsenic] to an individual’s diet.”


Both the study authors and other arsenic researchers have called for the government to set limits for arsenic levels in food. “That’s the real point of emphasis here,” said Dr. Ana Navas-Acien, MD, a researcher at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who studies the health effects of arsenic exposure.

For now, consumers who are worried about arsenic should scan the ingredient list on food labels for brown rice syrup. “The problem with this particular ingredient is that it’s highly concentrated and may contain more arsenic than whole rice which has a higher water content,” explained Navas-Acien.

Parents may want to avoid the use of formulas containing brown rice syrup altogether since the amount of arsenic they contain falls high above the EPA’s standard for drinking water. “In the sense that it’s above that safety standard,” said Navas-Acien, “it’s of concern.”

For other foods, we might want to just practice common sense. “Consider the frequency of your consumption,” Navas-Acien recommended. “If you eat them all the time, you might want to cut back, but having a product with brown rice syrup occasionally probably won’t cause any harm.”

Deborah Kotz can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @debkotz2.