We answer your questions after scientists raise concerns over levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium found in foods designed for young babies
Swedish scientists investigating different shop-bought baby foods have found the low-level presence of a number of toxins (namely arsenic, lead and cadmium). This was particularly marked in baby rice products. These levels are all within the current safety guidelines, but the study suggests that the guidelines should be reviewed.
The first thing to say is don't panic. The amounts found were very low levels of contaminants, and as mentioned all were within the current official safety limits set by the EC and the FSA.
The issue that's being raised is whether the guidelines need reviewing, especially in respect of young infants. Some scientists are concerned that it’s difficult to assess the risk of low levels of these toxins in babies and young children. It’s thought that young infants may be particularly susceptible to these chemicals due to the fact their bodies are developing and growing so rapidly.
This has led to the Swedish researchers calling for new safety guidelines. Coincidentally, both the FSA and the European Commisision are currently carrying out a review of the present limits and risks of long-term exposure to low level environmental toxins, particularly in food designed for babies and toddlers.
The World Health Organisation daily safe intake limit for arsenic was set at two micrograms for every kilogram of body weight. However, this was suspended earlier this year, due to concerns over possible cancer risk at low levels.
In the UK, there is a general limit of 1 mg/kg (milligram per kilogram) for arsenic in food.
Baby food manufacturers who had products tested in the research, confirm they rigorously test all elements in their products and that all conform to the current UK food standards.
Arsenic, cadmium and lead are all naturally found in low levels in the environment – for example in soil and water. As a result, it is very difficult to avoid them completely.
Plants absorb the elements from the soil as they grow. Rice is particularly susceptible to absorbing arsenic, which means rice grown in arsenic-containing soil can contain quite high levels.
Not all rice does contain significant levels of arsenic – rice grown in soil that has much lower levels of contaminants will not absorb the same levels of toxins.
Dr Karin Ljung, who led the Swedish research said, “The producers [ie, food manufacturers] are following all the rules. The trouble is that the guidelines are not based on infant exposure. As we are getting more information coming out, it may be time to reconsider what these safety limits are.”
Dr Ljung added that breastfeeding until babies are six months’ old appears to be best for:
The good news is that it appears your body is able to filter out the contaminants from your breast milk.
A representative for the British Specialist Nutrition Association (BSNA) – a trade body for baby food manufacturers – responded, “BSNA members carefully select and control their ingredients, to ensure they are safe for infants.
“That selection of suitable ingredients ensures the lowest possible occurrence of certain naturally-occurring substances. Ingredients that do not meet stringent specifications are not used in baby foods.”
No. In 2008 concerns were raised about the levels of arsenic in toddler rice drinks. In May 2009, the FSA announced that “as a precaution” it was recommending that young children between the ages of 1 and 4 and a half, should not have rice drinks as a replacement for cows’ milk, breast milk, or infant formula.
Baby rice milk was singled out because children would drink a relatively large amount to replace their normal milk drink. The FSA warned that a daily half pint or 280 millilitres of rice drink could double the amount of inorganic arsenic (the more harmful form) they consume each day.
However, at the time, the FSA reiterated that there was no immediate risk to children who had been having rice drinks and that it was unlikely there would have been any long-term harmful effects. But it advised reducing further exposure by stopping giving these drinks to toddlers and young children.
Firstly, don't worry if you've been giving your baby or child baby rice.
But what you can do is:
Finally, you may want to look on the packaging to see if any of the manufacturers are promoting the fact that they’re sourcing rice and other wheat/oat products from relatively uncontaminated soil.
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