Arsenic in Organic Brown Rice Syrup

6 years ago

A recent Dartmouth study revealed certain products containing organic brown rice syrup as a major ingredient contained high levels of cancer causing inorganic arsenic. The products tested were toddler formula, cereal bars, and high performance energy products.

Image: Satoru Kikuchi via Flickr

Despite this recent study, inorganic arsenic in rice is not a new subject. Past studies reported similar findings. Yet neither agricultural or regulatory measures have been introduced to reduce exposure. There is just so much more to this story than a plea for governmental intervention.

(Throughout this post, organic brown rice syrup will be abbreviated as OBRS.) 

Of further note, the study refers to infant formula.  Deborah Kotz  of the clarified that the products tested were toddler not infant formulas. Brian Jackson, lead author of the study, confirmed her statements.

The Study's Findings

First things first. Let's examine the study to see why it is alarming so many people, especially young parents. The Dartmouth team bought the following products from a local store:

  • 3 brown rice syrups
  • 17 infant formulas, in which 2 contained organic brown rice syrup as an ingredient
  •  29 cereal bars in which 13 contained OBRS
  • 3 flavors of high energy performance products.

They found the following results:

  • Organic toddler formulas which  contained OBRS as a primary ingredient contained an arsenic concentrations 6 times the level of the EPA safe water limits. (Now can you understand why parents would be upset.)
  • The arsenic level of formula containing OBRS  was 20 times higher than those formulas which didn't contain OBRS.
  • Cereal Bars and energy products with OBRS contained higher levels of arsenic then their non-OBRS counterparts.
What is Inorganic Arsenic?

Before I could understand the study, I had to wrap my head around what was inorganic arsenic, where did it come from, and what should we do about it? Inorganic arsenic is found in soils contaminated by arsenic-based pesticides, industrial districts or mining areas, municipal waste, or contaminated water. [source.]

Arsenic-based pesticides were used to control boll weevils from damaging cotton crops in the south central United States.  Rice paddies have replaced cotton fields; however, the pesticide residue remains.  Thank goodness, arsenic based pesticides have been banned; unfortunately, the damage is done. Rice is primarily grown in the South. In 2007, a report noted that approximately 80 percent of all rice grown in the United States was in the South - 50% of rice production was grown in Arkansas.  The balance is grown in California.

Why Rice?

But I still couldn't understand why rice and arsenic were having such a troublesome relationship as compared to other plants. John Duxbury, Professor of Soil Science and International Agriculture at Cornell University, explains via email:

 "Rice has high levels of arsenic compared to other cereals because it is mostly grown in flooded soils, i.e. rice paddies.  Flooded soil becomes reduced (in the chemical sense), which means that iron oxides to which arsenic is primarily absorbed are reduced to soluble iron forms and arsenic is released into the solution and thus becomes available for uptake by rice."

In fact, if you are thinking only brown rice is effected, think again.  A 2007 study conducted by Professor Andrew Meharg and team, concluded a specialty white rice in Louisiana had the highest inorganic arsenic levels of the 134 different white and brown rice samples. Conversely, California's rice had the lowest amount of inorganic arsenic of the samples.

But Why Brown Rice Sryup?

According to Professor Meharg, OBRS is so concentrated that it would render higher levels of inorganic arsenic. Jackson indicated that he didn't think that it mattered whether they studied organic versus non-organic brown rice syrup. Brown rice syrup was the culprit.

Inorganic arsenic is a human carcinogen. [source.]  Meharg's 2007 study reports:

"Arsenic has also been shown to have an impact on fertility; to increase the risk of hypertension, diabetes mellitus, vascular disease, and birth defects; and to impair children's development by reducing intellectual function. Additionally, there is new evidence to suggest in utero and early childhood exposure can result in a marked increase in mortality from lung cancer and bronchiectasis."


He further explained that people who are gluten-free, babies, Asians, Hispanics, and African Americans are more at risk. This group consumes more rice products than the average person. 

It would seem obvious that eating products with OBRS as a primary ingredient would be even more risky. Right now there are no FDA or EU regulations regarding allowable arsenic levels in rice or rice by products like OBRS.  So, what are we supposed to do?

 Read part II of my article discusses guidelines to wade through the rice patties.

Please sign my petition to reduce arsenic in rice at to wake up the FDA and EU.  Please share with your family and friends on Facebook, Twitter, and via email. Here is the shorten url:  (Just cut and paste.)

Join the conversation:
  • Given this news, how will you alter your rice and/or brown rice syrup consumption?
  • Do you give your child products that contain brown rice syrup?
  • Do you consume energy products with brown rice syrup?
  • How do you feel about the lack of regulation of arsenic?


Anna is a sustainability consultant and blogs at Green Talk, a green living and biz blog devoted to starting the conversation.  Please sign and share the rice petition.
This is an article written by a member of the SheKnows Community. The SheKnows editorial team has not edited, vetted or endorsed the content of this post. Want to join our amazing community and share your own story? Sign up here.

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