Infants fed rice cereal have higher levels of arsenic

April 27, 2016 Providence Health Team

Feeding babies rice cereal before moving on to solids has been a common practice for parents. But a new study finds that infants who are fed rice cereal have higher levels of arsenic, which may be harmful to a child’s intellectual development and immune system.

While the potential health effects of regularly feeding babies rice cereal is not entirely clear, the researchers suggest that parents reduce an infant’s rice consumption “during this critical phase of development.”

Arsenic is a natural element present in soil, water and air. Inorganic arsenic is considered more toxic than organic arsenic and was the focus of the study, published in the Journal of American Medical Association. Rice tends to absorb inorganic arsenic more readily than other crops.

Infants, rice cereal and arsenic levels

The research team, led by Margaret Karagas, an epidemiologist at Dartmouth College, examined the diets of 759 infants during their first year. Between 2011 and 2014, the team gathered information about rice and rice products the babies were fed at 4, 8 and 12 months. They found:

  • An estimated 80 percent of the infants were fed rice cereal during their first year.
  • At 12 months, 32.6 percent of the children ate rice snacks.
  • Arsenic concentrations were twice as high in the urine of infants who were fed rice versus those who were not.
  • Arsenic levels were highest in babies who were fed rice cereal.

The researchers suggest that children appear to be more sensitive to the carcinogenic effects of arsenic, which may include a heightened risk for problems with growth, the immune response and development of the brain.

A study in 2004 examined children in Bangladesh who were exposed to arsenic in drinking water. These children scored significantly lower on intellectual tests than peers who were not exposed to arsenic.

The new study comes just weeks after the Food and Drug Administration proposed a limit of 100 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. The European Food Safety Authority is proposing similar limits.

What should parents do

If you have an infant, the FDA offers this advice:

  • Feed your baby iron-fortified foods to make sure he or she is getting enough of this important nutrient.
  • Rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source of nutrients, but it shouldn’t be the only source, or even the first source. Try feeding your child fortified infant oat, barley and multigrain cereals.
  • Make sure toddlers also eat a variety of grains.

And this nutrition advice from the American Academy of Pediatrics:

  • Breastfeed for the first year, unless advised otherwise by your pediatrician.
  • Introduce solid foods at around 6 months.
  • Expose your baby to a wide variety of healthy foods and textures.
  • After 9 months, offer your child two to three nutritious snacks a day.
  • Offer fruits and vegetables after the introduction of finger goods.

If you have questions about how much rice you should be feeding your baby, talk to your health care provider. You can find a Providence pediatrician here.

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