Arsenic levels in rice cakes and baby rice: what you need to know

New research has caused a stir, saying that many baby rice products contain dangerous levels of the toxic substance arsenic. Here’s what you need to know...

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There are headlines everywhere today about a study by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast, which included some worrying figures about the levels of arsenic found in baby rice and rice cakes aimed at very young children.

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Arsenic is a carcinogenic substance naturally absorbed by plants from soil and water, and as a result is found in many different food products in very low quantities.

It’s known for being found in rice in particular – a grain which absorbs more than most.

But the research, published in the Plos One journal, shows that little ones consuming these products have been exposed to higher levels of inorganic arsenic (the most harmful form) than allowed by EU regulations set in place in January 2016.

“Babies are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of arsenic,” said Professor Andy Meharg, who led the research.“[This] can prevent healthy development of a baby’s growth, IQ and immune system, to name but a few.”

Sounds pretty scary, right? But what does all this actually mean – and is there really any cause for concern?

What the study found

The Independent reports that the researchers tested the following, from 9 different (anonymous) brands/manufacturers found in 17 different Belfast-based shops:

  • 13 kinds of baby rice
  • 29 packets of rice cakes
  • 31 types of rice cereal.

The tests showed that 61% of baby rice, 80% of rice cakes, and 32% of rice cereals contained more than the legally-allowed amount of inorganic arsenic. (We have to wonder if this might be the case for many different brands, too.)

Notably, it’s been reported that products were tested in February 2016 – just one month after the EU regulations were put in place.

A spokesperson for the British Specialist Nutrition Association, which represents manufacturers Boots, Danone and Nestle in this market, claims that because the products tested in this particular study were bought in February 2016, they may not have had time to become compliant with the EU’s guidelines.

If they were to be bought now, the spokesperson made it clear that their members’ products would in fact comply with the allowed level of this inorganic arsenic.

So, is it safe to give my child rice products?

In a nutshell: yes, it is. But like all foods, it’s important to make sure it’s in moderation, and that they’re not being eaten all the time.

Unsalted rice cakes are even listed as a healthy snack on the NHS website, so don’t feel panicked into crossing them off your shopping list.

British Dietetic Association (BDA) spokesperson Aisling Pigott told The Huffington Post that “rice cakes are still an appropriate snack, but I would encourage parents to also include fruit and vegetables as snacks and try to mix things up a little bit.”

We’d advise you to give your little one baby rice cakes – ones specifically made for children under 3 – as these contain less arsenic than rice cakes for grown-ups, according to baby food brand Organix.

When it comes to baby rice, we’d suggest giving these foods no more than once a day, and as we advised in our guide, suggest moving on from this stage early in the weaning process.

“There’s no harm in giving baby rice,” Aisling told us. “But too much of anything isn’t beneficial.”

It’s important to note that rice milk, however, is generally not recommended for children under 5 years as a precaution.

What the experts say

The important thing is not to panic. Health complications from over-consuming the toxin are a concern, especially for babies and young children, due to their smaller body weight – though, as the Food Standards Agency says:

“It’s impossible to eliminate [arsenic] from our food. However, having too much arsenic in our diet could be harmful to health.”

And as Aisling tells us, the risk is very, very tiny.

In other words – be aware of what you’re giving your little ones in terms of rice cakes and baby rice, but don’t ban them from your shopping list altogether.

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