Urgent action needed to reduce arsenic in infant rice cereals, says study

By Gill Hyslop

- Last updated on GMT

Infant rice cereals account for 55% of the total inorganic arsenic infants ingest, according to a 2016 study. Pic: ©GettyImages/ChristinLola
Infant rice cereals account for 55% of the total inorganic arsenic infants ingest, according to a 2016 study. Pic: ©GettyImages/ChristinLola

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Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), an alliance of scientists and child health advocacy organizations, is calling for urgent action by cereal makers, the FDA and parents to remove high-arsenic cereals off store shelves and out of infants’ diets.

The HBBF has lashed out at the US FDA for “falling short of protecting infants”​ after a study found infant rice cereals contain six times the level of arsenic than other grain cereals on the market.

The study tested more than 100 types of infant cereals, including 45 products made by nine different companies, including Beech-Nut and BioKinetics, sold at stores around the US.

Results found one third of the brands tested contained levels of 90 parts per billion (ppb) or higher of inorganic arsenic (the most toxic form of arsenic).

The FDA has no limit for arsenic in rice cereal, but issued draft guidance of 100 ppb of inorganic arsenic ​last year.

Laboratory test results

Averaging all the samples together in the HBBF report, the rice cereals contained 85 ppb of inorganic arsenic, but several samples came in with 90 ppb or higher.

BrandCerealGrains listedInorganic arsenic levels
Beech-NutRice Baby CerealRice flourRanging between 67-102 ppb
GerberComplete Rice Single Grain Baby CerealRice flourRanging between 65-78 ppb
GerberDHA Probiotic Rice CerealRice flourRanging between 79-86 ppb
GerberOrganic Rice CerealOrganic rice flourRanging between 28-47 ppb
GerberRice CerealRice flourRanging between 59-112 ppb
BioKineticsBrown Rice Sprouted Baby CerealOrganic sprouted brown rice flakesRanging between 128-235 ppb
Earth's BestWhole Grain Rice CerealOrganic whole grain brown rice flourRanging between 65-109 ppb
GerberOrganic Brown Rice CerealOrganic whole grain brown rice flourRanging between 72-109 ppb
GerberRice & Banana Apple CerealWhole grain rice flourRanging between 92-107 ppb
HappyBABYOrganic Probiotic Baby Cereal - Brown RiceMilled organic whole grain brown riceRanging between 51-123 ppb
Healthy TimesBrown Rice Cereal for BabiesOrganic whole grain brown rice flour102 ppb

BioKinetics’ Brown Rice Sprouted Baby Cereal contained the most arsenic in the testing, with samples ranging from 128-235 ppb.

However, BioKinetics president Robert DenHoed said the company does not intend making any changes.

“We test samples ourselves and send some to an offsite lab in Toronto, and our readings are typically less than 10 ppb,”​ he said in a statement to the media.

High levels of arsenic were also found in Beechnut infant cereals, with a sample of its Rice Baby Cereal brand ranging between 87-102 ppb.

In its media statement, Beech-Nut reassured parents the company has rigorous testing protocols in place to ensure it provides safe, nutritious food for babies.

“All of our currently available cereals meet the FDA recommendation for inorganic arsenic. We buy our rice from California, the rice-growing region with the lowest levels of arsenic and we test every delivery of rice flour before we make our rice cereal as a standard practice,”​ said the company.

The HBBF contends that – more than a year after the FDA issued its draft guidance to cereal makers of 100ppb – the regulator has still not set a final limit for arsenic in rice cereal.

Arsenic levels of infant rice cereals vs multi-grain cereals
Arsenic levels of infant rice cereals vs multi-grain cereals

“It has failed to finalize the proposed cap in its draft guidance, even though there is no known safe level of arsenic exposure,”​ wrote Jane Houlihan, national director of Science and Health, HBBF, in the report.

Arsenic is strictly regulated in drinking water (with a limit of 10 ppb), but is legal in any amount in infant rice cereal.

A cup of prepared infant rice cereal has more than double the amount of arsenic allowed in a cup of water, according to the report.

Rice naturally absorbs more ten times more arsenic from soil and water than other grains used for infant cereals.

High costs of arsenic

Several studies – including those conducted by the FDA – have found that inorganic arsenic exposure in infants and pregnant women can result in reduce children’s IQ.​.

The World Health Organization also foundlong-term exposure can cause cancer and skin lesions.

According to the HBBF report, rice-based foods are resulting in a loss of 9.2 million IQ points among 0-6 year-old children.

The lower IQs will result in decreased salaries for those children when they are adults, costing the US an estimated $12-$18bn annually.

Call for action

The HBBF is calling upon the FDA to “act immediately to set an enforceable, health-based limit for arsenic in infant rice cereal and other rice-based foods.”

Although the study found cereal makers have taken steps to limit arsenic in infant rice cereals – levels were reduced, on average, to 85 ppb in 2016-2017 from 103 ppb in 2013-2014 – it urges cereal makers to continue reducing these levels.

In the meantime, it is encouraging parents to stop feeding children rice cereals altogether, and substitute them with iron-fortified grain cereals such as barley, oat, and multigrain.

The HBBF also recommended avoiding infant rice snacks, which contain high arsenic levels, too.


Arsenic in 9 Brands of Infant Cereal

Author: Jane Houlihan, MSCE, National Director of Science and Health, Healthy Babies Bright Futures

Funded by the Forsythia and Passport Foundations and The John Merck Fund

The study has not been peer-reviewed or published in a journal, but is posted on the HBBF website.

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