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High arsenic levels found in organic foods, baby formula

The toxic element has been discovered in brown rice syrup, an ingredient commonly used to sweeten cereal bars. NBC's Tom Costello reports.

Next time you pick up an organic cereal bar or buy infant formula, you might want to read the label closely. High levels of arsenic, a chemical linked to cancer, chronic diseases and developmental effects, have been found in foods that list organic brown rice syrup as a primary ingredient, according to a new study from Dartmouth University.

Organic brown rice syrup is often used as a substitute for high fructose corn syrup in prepared organic foods. One of the infant formulas tested contained twice the inorganic arsenic allowed in drinking water, according to Environmental Protection Agency standards. One cereal bar contained 12 times the legal limit for drinking water of 10 parts per billion (ppb). High-energy foods tested had 8 to 17 times the limit.

The researchers tested 17 infant formulas, 29 cereal bars and three types of energy shot drinks. Two infant formulas –- one dairy based and the other soy based – listed organic brown rice syrup as their primary ingredient. They both contained arsenic levels 20 times higher than the other formulas made without organic brown rice syrup.

The report, which was published online Thursday in Environmental Health Perspectives, didn’t list specific brands, but the study’s lead author Brian Jackson said a variety of products purchased at local stores in Hanover, N.H., were included in the test.

The researchers tested for both inorganic and organic forms of arsenic, although inorganic arsenic was the main source found in the majority of the products. The two types of arsenic refer to the chemistry of the compound and are not connected to pesticide use. Current research has linked inorganic arsenic to various cancers. Experts are split over whether there are risks from organic arsenic.

When it comes to the energy shots and cereal bars, “I don’t think there’s a real immediate danger,” said Jackson, a research associate professor. “The only comparison is drinking water and the risk factors are based on lifetime exposure.”

Infant formulas with high arsenic levels are more of a concern. “It’s probably not a good thing for an infant to be exposed to those levels of arsenic,” Jackson said. “We don’t know the effects of long-term exposure.”

The Darmouth study follows a report last year showing high arsenic levels in some apple and grape juice.

While organic foods are generally seen as healthier, Dr. Mehmet Oz told TODAY Thursday that organic doesn’t necessarily mean safe. Even foods that are organic may absorb arsenic through a natural process, he said.

“It’s a big concern for me,” Oz said on TODAY. “I think it’s another reason [why] we need to be very strict on how much arsenic we’re going to allow in our food supply. This is especially important for kids, it’s in infant formula that we’re seeing this stuff, it’s in juices that kids are taking.” Last year Oz commissioned a report on arsenic levels in fruit juices.

In fact, rice takes up arsenic from the soil, Jackson explained. As it turns out arsenic looks very much like silica to the rice plant and “rice takes up silica to help it stand up in water logged soils.”

Different varieties of rice take up different amounts of arsenic, Jackson said. Brown rice tends to have particularly high levels of arsenic.

Wahida Karmally, a researcher unaffiliated with the new study, was alarmed by Jackson’s findings.

“These results are extremely scary,” said Karmally, an associate research scientist at the Columbia University Medical Center. “I’m very concerned about the idea of babies on formula that is laced with arsenic. I wish the researchers had told us which of the formulas tested high in arsenic so they could be taken off the market.”

While the Food and Drug Administration could pull foods from grocery store shelves, Karmally said she would rather see manufacturers do more to test foods – especially those designed to be the main source of nutrition for infants – to make sure there were no dangerous contaminants.

The EPA has set safe drinking water limits for arsenic at 10 parts per billion (ppb). The researchers found inorganic arsenic levels of 8.6 ppb in the dairy based formula and 21.4 ppb in the soy based formula.

The arsenic levels in cereal bars tested ranged from 23 to 128 ppb in products that contained rice ingredients.  One of the three energy shots tested had 84 ppb arsenic (all of which was inorganic arsenic), while the other two came in at 171 ppb (53 percent of which was inorganic).

Jackson is especially concerned about the infant formulas in light of the fact that the EPA standards for drinking water are set not for tiny babies, but for full grown adults. So the impact of these levels of arsenic might be far greater. Beyond this, he said, some babies are getting formula as their sole source of nutrition.

The Darmouth researchers hope that studies like these will spur government agencies to take a closer look at food. “There is a data base for exposure to arsenic in drinking water,” Jackson said. “But there’s nothing out there on food. It’s time we looked at this and ask whether we need guidelines for arsenic exposure in food.” 

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Dr. Mehmet Oz discusses arsenic found in some organic foods and gives tips on how to buy healthy foods at the grocery store.