Infant rice cereal is a widely used starter food for babies, but new regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) suggest that parents should limit infants’ intake of rice cereal. The recommendation arises out of concerns about the health impact of inorganic arsenic contained in rice cereal on babies and pregnant women. In addition to advising parents to limit rice cereal in their babies’ diets, the FDA is proposing a limit to the amount of inorganic arsenic that infant rice cereal can contain.
“Arsenic” is a chemical element used for a variety of purposes; in sufficient quantities, it’s also poisonous. Arsenic occurs naturally in water and soil, and it can also make its way into crops through pesticides and fertilizers. According to the FDA, there are two types of arsenic, organic and inorganic, the latter being the more toxic of the pair. Compared to other crops, rice contains particularly high levels of inorganic arsenic, due in part to the fact that it grows in a very water-rich environment.
Rice is a major staple of many babies’ diets, especially when they are first learning to eat solid food. The FDA estimates that, relative to their size, babies eat triple the amount of rice that adults do, with their consumption of rice peaking at around 8 months of age. In a statement released Friday, the FDA said that consuming inorganic arsenic, like that found in rice cereal, can lead to learning problems in children. Importantly, it’s not only babies who are at risk: pregnant women who consume inorganic arsenic through rice risk “adverse pregnancy outcomes,” as well as developmental problems in their infants.
The FDA has proposed a measure that would limit the amount of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal to 100 parts per billion (ppb). In an analysis of 76 samples of infant rice cereal from retail stores, the FDA found that 47 percent already meet the proposed limit of inorganic arsenic. Most of the cereals tested (78 percent) contained arsenic levels at or below 110 ppb. The FDA also tested 400 non-rice foods that are common in the diets of babies and toddlers for arsenic and found that these foods’ arsenic levels came in well below the 100 ppb limit.
Before you throw out all of the rice-based products in your pantry, you should note that the FDA isn’t recommending that babies and pregnant women eliminate rice from their diets entirely; rather, the key is that they have a varied diet that doesn’t rely too heavily on rice products. Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health and Chief of Section of Toxicology at Children's Mercy in Kansas City, Missouri, told NBC News, “I wouldn't say don't eat rice. I would say, don't only eat rice. Eat other grains in addition to rice, and eat other grains first.”
In its news release, the FDA offers the following advice to parents:
Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, describes the FDA’s proposal to limit arsenic in infant rice cereal as a “prudent and achievable step to reduce exposure to arsenic among infants.”