Researchers alarmed over arsenic in baby food

Swedish researchers are reporting "alarming" levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead in rice-based infant foods, such as cereal and porridge.

Their study, appearing in the Journal of Food Chemistry, raises questions about whether rice-based products are suitable for infants.

"Alarmingly, these complementary foods may also introduce high amounts of toxic elements such as arsenic, cadmium, lead and uranium, mainly from their raw materials," wrote the authors, from Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm. "These elements have to be kept at an absolute minimum in food products intended for infant consumption."

The foods were produced by global manufacturers such as Nestle and Mead Johnson. According to the Sunday Telegraph, a British newspaper, the manufacturers insisted their products were safe.

Low levels of arsenic in foods is actually not uncommon. The question is, how much is too much?

In 2005, Scottish researchers found arsenic in rice grown in the United States. Arsenic is absorbed by the rice plant through soils contaminated with the toxin, which is naturally occurring. The U.S. has not set legal limits for arsenic levels in food.

California health department spokesman Ronald Owens said Californians should not be alarmed. Owens said the state has sampled rice in the past and "analyzed various baby food products for the presence of heavy metals that have never resulted in a finding that were of any public health significance."

Indeed, while no legal limits were broken in this latest study, the authors state that just two servings a day of the rice-based foods could expose an infant to 50 times the amount of arsenic they would get from breast milk alone. And with new uncertainties about how arsenic affects developing children, this level is too high, say the authors.

The European Food Safety Authority is now in the process of re-evaluating its safety limits for arsenic exposure in children and adults.

The study raises questions about whether rice-based products are suitable in an infant's diet.

Arsenic has been linked to cancer and immune system problems.

The researchers looked at nine infant formulas and nine infant foods all intended for children four months of age and older. The infant formulas they looked at were powdered, and ran the gamut from organic milk formula to a milk, rice and starch formula. They also looked at cereals and beans.

They found varying concentrations of different elements in infant foods and formulas. Some had high levels of arsenic or iron, while others had low levels.

Story courtesy of our media partners at California Watch (A Project of the Center for Investigative Reporting)

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