THE GIST

- Foods made with rice syrup can contain high amounts of arsenic.

- How much arsenic is too much is still being debated, although the risk is greatest for babies.

- Food is emerging as a major source of arsenic exposure, especially for young children.

As virtuous as you might feel when you choose organic foods sweetened with brown rice syrup instead of high-fructose corn syrup, you might actually be making a potentially toxic decision.

Infant formulas, cereal bars and other foods made with organic brown rice syrup are loaded with arsenic, found a new study. And while an occasional rice-sweetened energy bar probably won't make much of a difference to your health, potential risks are greatest for babies, people with gluten intolerance and others who eat rice-heavy diets.

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The findings suggest the need for regulations on arsenic in food, which so far, the United States Food and Drug Administration does not do.

"Here is just another food type that no one would consider would contain arsenic, and yet it does," said Brian Jackson, an environmental chemist at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. "We really have no guidelines on what maximum levels should be for arsenic in food. Maybe it's time this was considered."

Arsenic, which is naturally ubiquitous in the environment and also a result of human activities, is a known carcinogen that, with enough daily exposure over years or decades, can also cause circulatory problems, type 2 diabetes, asthma and cardiovascular disease, among other ills.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulates exposure to the mineral, but only through public supplies of drinking water, which cannot contain more than 10 parts per billion of arsenic.

Only in the last couple of years have scientists realized that food, too, often contains arsenic. Studies have found the highest levels in fruit juices, rice and rice products, including crackers, rice milk and cereals made for both adults and babies.

At the supermarket one day, Jackson noticed two types of organic infant formulas that his team hadn't yet tested in an ongoing study of arsenic in formulas, which had so far turned up only low levels. Results for both turned up levels measuring 20 to 30 times higher than previously tested varieties, and a look at their labels revealed the use of organic brown rice syrup in place of high-fructose corn syrup or other sources of sugar.

To follow up, Jackson and colleagues measured arsenic levels in 17 kinds of infant formula, 29 cereal bars, and three energy shots made for athletes, all bought from local supermarkets.

Many baby foods are made from rice, and scientists have yet to find any rice that doesn't have arsenic in it.Corbis

Of the two formulas made with organic brown rice syrup, one exceeded U.S. drinking water standards, the researchers report today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. That one was soy-based. A dairy-based, rice-containing variety came in right at those standards. Both exceeded the World Health Organization's maximum tolerable daily intake level for infants. Formulas made without rice had much lower levels of arsenic.

Arsenic levels were also elevated in energy shots and cereal bars made with rice syrup, rice flakes, rice flour or grains of rice. Eating one bar at the top end of arsenic contamination would supply four micrograms of the mineral, Jackson said, or 40 percent of the limit set for drinking water. Commercially bought rice syrups had concentrations as high as four times greater than drinking water standards.

An estimated 20 percent of people in New England and 25 million people nationwide are already exposed to excessive amounts of arsenic from drinking water taken out of private, unregulated wells, said Joshua Hamilton, a toxicologist and arsenic expert at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Mass. Many more are drinking public supplies of water that contain the maximum allowable level of 10 ppb.

As experts continue to debate exactly what levels of arsenic consumption are safe for people, the new findings point to the importance of considering food in addition to drinking water when adding up sources of exposure, Hamilton said. Added together, people might be getting too much.

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Concerns are greatest for fetuses, babies and young children, for a variety of reasons. Young people eat and drink more for their size than adults do. They are more sensitive to all kinds of toxins. And studies show that arsenic exposure in the first 10 years of life is riskier than later on.

Many baby foods are made from rice, and scientists have yet to find any rice that doesn't have arsenic in it, said Hamilton, who recommended that parents avoid feeding excessive amounts of rice-based products to their kids.

He also urged people not to panic, as rice also has health benefits, especially for people who can't eat wheat or gluten. Arsenic does not accumulate in our bodies, like lead and mercury do. And it's only chronic daily exposure that goes on for years that really matters.

"People shouldn't freak out and think, 'Oh, I had a cup of rice yesterday and something bad is going to happen,'" Hamilton said. "It doesn't work that way, especially with arsenic."

"This highlights how little we know about our food and what might be in there," he added. "It's something we should all pay more attention to."