Arsenic and brown rice?

The recent discovery of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup is causing consumers to question their food choices, especially when it comes to eating organic. Last month, a Dartmouth research team published their study in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed journal. The study found levels of arsenic in organic brown rice syrup, which is commonly used as a sweetener in processed foods such as organic baby formula, energy bars, breakfast cereals, and even apple juice.

“They say organic, but it doesn’t mean anything—the foods are still unhealthy,” said Santa Monica College biology professor Alexandra Tower. “Yes, there are definite advantages to eating organic, but the foods have to be unprocessed.”

The study stated that Nature’s One organic baby formula contains arsenic, but researchers say that the list of affected foods is longer than that.

Since organic brown rice syrup is now being used in a growing number of products, consumers might want to avoid all products containing this sweetener until further research is completed.

“The FDA has been monitoring for arsenic content for more than 20 years,” said FDA press officer for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Allen Curtis. “Because arsenic is naturally occurring in soil, and was used for many years in pesticides, we know there are trace amounts of arsenic in many foods. In response, FDA has expanded its surveillance activities in rice to ensure that consumers are protected.”

In fact, the FDA initiated a study last October to determine the level and types of arsenic typically found in foods. According to Curtis, the study is scheduled to be completed by this spring.

“All plants pick up arsenic,” John Duxbury, a professor of soil science at Cornell University, said in a WebMD article. “Concentrations in leaves of plants are much higher than in grains of plants. Thus, leafy vegetables can contain higher levels of arsenic than rice, especially when they are grown on arsenic-contaminated soils.”

According to the website, most of the rice in the southern U.S. grows in locations that were once cotton fields, where arsenic was used as a pesticide. Plants absorb arsenic from the soil, “mistaking” it for a nutrient.

In addition to potentially ingesting arsenic through food, people can also be exposed to arsenic just by breathing if materials like treated wood or tobacco are burnt, releasing arsenic into the air.

The use of organic brown rice syrup as a sweetener has gained popularity since high-fructose corn syrup has become increasingly scrutinized. In 2009, the Institute for Agricultural and Trade Policy found high-fructose corn syrup to be commonly tainted with mercury.

So how should the consumer decide between foods sweetened with ingredients that may contain toxic elements?

“Choose foods without sweeteners, meaning unprocessed,” said Tower.