Rice cereal and other rice products are typical choices for parents when first beginning to introduce foods into a baby’s diet. Many consider this bland grain to be a healthy and versatile introductory food as well as go-to snack for babies and infants in the form of cereals, cakes, and cooked meals. While it may be highly palatable, easy to eat, and an affordable option, studies are beginning to show that this food is not without risk, in the form of inorganic arsenic.
Inorganic arsenic is a significant contributing factor to decreases in intelligence and impaired immunological function in children exposed to elevated levels. Rice is notorious for requiring a great deal of water for growth, and it’s able to absorb more arsenic because of this, since the water leeches this contaminant from the soil. Inorganic, in this case, is not a description of the farming method, but instead describes its chemical composition. Brown and wild rice are the most problematic, since the bulk of the arsenic is contained in the external bran, though milled white rice does contain measurably unhealthy levels.
Many processed foods can also be culprits, as rice syrup is a common sweetener in many types of treats, snack bars, and infant formulas. Choosing a certified organic product does not make a difference, in terms of arsenic content, either. Due to previous cotton pesticide use and industrial contamination, the level of arsenic available in the water used for growing rice is significant. While trace amounts of arsenic in our food supply are unavoidable, advising clients to reduce the amount of rice they consume themselves and provide to their children may be optimal.
Double the amount of arsenic
A study out of Dartmouth, coauthored by Margaret R. Karagas, Ph.D at the Geisel School of Medicine followed 759 infants born between 2011 and 2014, and collected data on the frequency of rice products in their diet, and what types were consumed. This study showed that 80% of infants were introduced to rice cereal within the first year of life, most of whom were within 4 and 6 months of birth at first introduction. At 12 months of age, urine was able to be collected from 129 of the infants, and this showed that there was double the amount of arsenic in the urine of the infants who ate rice or rice products as compared to those who did not consume rice.
While there were no immediate critical illnesses that developed, long term health complications are being investigated, such as an increased risk for certain cancers.
During this critical time of development, clients may wish to choose more nutrient dense foods for their babies. Choices such as avocado, banana, nut butters, and pureed proteins such as salmon are safer options for both parents and children, and reduce the risk of arsenic exposure. These whole, unprocessed foods can boast a more complete nutritional profile, and may better prepare babies for healthy eating habits later in life.