Arsenic in Organic Baby Foods: Duped by the Organics Promise?


A new study from Dartmouth University is making many moms pause and wonder if perhaps they have been duped by the promise of organics. The study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives  tested a total of 17 infant and toddler formulas, 29 cereal bars, and 3 energy shots for the presence of arsenic.  One ingredient in particular - organic brown rice syrup (OBRS)- seemed to be the common culprit, as products that contained OBRS contained up to 12 times the EPA’s safe drinking water limit for arsenic. Organic brown rice syrup is a commonly used sweetener (and carbohydrate source)  in organic foods, and is viewed by many as a healthier alternative to high fructose corn syrup. In the study, researchers found that the two toddler formulas containing OBRS as a primary ingredient had arsenic levels more than 20 times greater than the formulas that didn’t contain OBRS. The cereal bars and energy drinks containing OBRS also had significantly higher levels of arsenic than those bars and shots without the ingredient.  Arsenic is known to affect brain development in children (who, because of their rapid growth and development are particularly susceptible to the toxin), and may increase the risk of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.


What Does This Tell Us About Organics?

To be sure, headlines like “High Arsenic Levels Found in Organic Foods, Baby Formula” touches (or rather, stabs) at every mother’s soft spot and fear factor.  As a mother of two young children myself, the idea of arsenic in anything is at once terrifying and maddening, especially when it comes to our little ones. Many of us feel particularly irked by a finding like this if we’ve parted with our hard earned cash for organics in the belief that it’s a better choice for us and our children.

While the research is indeed newsworthy, here’s how I see the key takeaways.

Takeaway #1:  This story is about rice.

This study did not find that organic brown rice syrup contained more arsenic than conventional brown rice syrup. So the wrong conclusion would be something like “see, I knew organics weren’t any better!” or “shoot, does this mean organic is just as ‘bad’ as conventional?”.

What this study does do is highlight the fact that rice, because of how it likes to grow, can be a source of inorganic arsenic (“inorganic” in this case refers just to the chemical structure of the arsenic, not the USDA Organic certification program).  You see, rice plants like to absorb silica from the surrounding environment, which helps it stand up in waterlogged soil. The problem? Apparently arsenic looks a lot like silica to the rice plant, and is also absorbed to varying degrees depending on the rice variety (brown rice typically contains higher levels than white rice because the arsenic stays in an outer layer which is removed with polishing). To me, the takeaway is that we need to address lingering arsenic in our soil from past agricultural or industrial practices, especially when we are growing molecule-grabbing crops like rice. That we need a federal program to test arsenic levels in our food and beverages (see Takeaway #4). Or that if maybe (for now) it’s wise to limit products with brown rice syrup (including OBRS) listed as a primary ingredient until we have more information.

Takeaway #2:  Organics are still the best choice for you and your family.

Part of the clash in the “organic vs. conventional” debate comes in defining what we mean when we say  “better”.  While the science on the absolute nutritional benefits is still being established  (The Organic Center has the latest science here), when I personally use the word “better”, I mean that because organics protects you from added hormones, antibiotics, GMOs, irradiated food, potentially harmful pesticides and more (Stonyfield has a helpful list of specific differences between conventional and organic here ).  I believe you should buy organic as much as you can afford to-especially with key purchases like meat and dairy products, plus produce on “the Dirty Dozen” list. To help you, here are my tips to buy organics on a budget .

Takeaway #3: Organics are not immune to laws of nature.

Alas, just as organics isn’t immune to the laws of dieting (organic ice cream is still loaded with saturated fat and calories, for example, and organic candy bars are still candy bars), organic plants must still subscribe to Nature’s laws.  This study offers a good reminder that organics doesn’t automatically mean “safe”, but is a system like any other, that still needs to continually strive forward in best practices.

Takeaway #4: It’s time for federal regulations on arsenic in our food and beverages. 

Most of us are shocked to think that there are currently no US regulations regarding arsenic levels in food or juice. Hopefully, that’s set to change. Earlier this month, two U.S. Representatives introduced a bill that would require the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set safety standards for arsenic and lead in juices within 2 years.  (Shortly after Dr. Oz broke a controversial story last year about arsenic in apple juice, Consumer Reports issued its own findings: of 88 apple and grape juice samples tested, 10% had arsenic levels that exceeded federal standards.