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Why You Should Consider Alternatives to Infant Rice Cereal

Consumer Reports (February 17, 2022)

Originally published here.

Two brands of infant rice cereal—Gerber and Earth’s Best—have lowered the levels of inorganic arsenic in their products, new tests from Consumer Reports show. The companies had come under fire over the past year by lawmakers, state attorneys general, and consumer groups for the amount of the heavy metal in their rice cereals.We’re Not Loyal to Brands.
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But even at these new, relatively lower levels, the amounts of arsenic are still above what many experts recommend, says Brian Ronholm, director of food policy at Consumer Reports, and are much higher than what’s found in other infant grain cereals, such as oatmeal.MORE ON HEAVY METALSHeavy Metals in Baby Food: What You Need to KnowArsenic and Lead in JuicesReport Finds Problems With Heavy Metals in Baby FoodHerbs and Spices May Contain Arsenic, Cadmium, and Lead

Arsenic and other heavy metals can build up in the body, which can be especially dangerous to babies and young children. Inorganic arsenic is the more harmful type. Cumulative exposure is linked to behavior problems, ADHD, lower IQ, and increased risk for skin and bladder cancer.

“Manufacturers should be more aggressive in trying to lower inorganic levels,” Ronholm says. “If it is not feasible, they should stop selling it and ensure the wide availability of safer alternatives.”

Growing Pressure

In October, CR called on five baby food companies to suspend making and selling rice cereal because of its high arsenic levels. That request was made after a series of recalls and a pair of congressional reports that found alarmingly high levels of arsenic and other heavy metals in certain baby foods produced by these companies. Previous tests by CR and other organizations had shown similar results. 

Also that month, New York state Attorney General Letitia James, along with attorneys general from 22 other states, petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to lower its limit for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal from the current 100 parts per billion to a lower, more protective one. The attorneys general also want the FDA to speed up plans to set limits on other heavy metals in baby food. They cited evidence, including from CR’s tests, that manufacturers can achieve lower levels in their rice cereal products.

In response to CR, several manufacturers said they were suspending or had already stopped selling infant rice cereal—leaving two major players, Gerber and Earth’s Best, made by Hain Celestial, on the market. Both companies told CR they had taken steps to reduce the levels of heavy metals in infant rice cereals.

To assess how successful those efforts were, CR tested infant rice cereal made by both companies.

Still Too Much Arsenic

CR tested three samples from different lots of the rice cereals offered by each company. 

Inorganic arsenic levels in Earth’s Best Organic Infant Rice Cereal averaged 66.4 ppb. Gerber’s Single-Grain Rice Baby Cereal averaged 62.9 ppb and its Organic Single-Grain Rice Baby Cereal averaged 61.1 ppb. 

These are lower than in previous tests for infant rice cereals made by both companies. For example, tests of three lots of cereals conducted by CR in 2012 found average inorganic arsenic levels of 152 ppb for an Earth’s Best product and 106.8 ppb and 68.4 ppb for two Gerber products. And tests cited in the September congressional report found average inorganic arsenic levels of 87.4 ppb in Gerber’s conventional rice cereal and 65.6 ppb in its organic rice cereal.

Both companies told CR their products meet the current government limit for inorganic arsenic, as confirmed in CR’s recent tests. A spokesperson for Gerber said, “Parents are encouraged to serve a variety of infant cereal grains, including rice, wheat, and oat, as part of a balanced diet for little ones.” A spokesperson for Hain Celestial said Earth’s Best infant rice cereal is part of a “portfolio of safe and nutritious products.”

While these declines are welcome, CR’s experts say there is still plenty of room for improvement. They say the FDA set the limit at 100 ppb because of the increased risk for cancer caused by long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic at that level. But that limit didn’t fully take into account research showing that neurological damage can occur at lower levels. 

In addition, they say other infant cereals have lower levels. For example, in CR’s 2018 tests, infant oatmeals ranged from 7.1 ppb to 30 ppb; these products included cereals from Gerber and Earth’s Best.

“Infant rice cereal could be responsible for more than half of all exposure to inorganic arsenic in infants and toddlers if they ate it daily,” Ronholm says, referring to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. “Significantly reducing inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal would be a very effective way to address this issue and provide assurances to parents.” 

“While it’s not yet clear what is the lowest attainable level for inorganic arsenic in rice cereal, companies should strive to achieve the lowest levels possible,” says James E. Rogers, PhD, director of food safety research and testing at CR. “The goal should be to have no measurable levels of any heavy metal in baby foods,” he says.

Tips for Limiting Arsenic Exposure in Babies

While it’s important to avoid heavy metal exposure, parents need to feed their children, and there’s no reason for panic. Parents can take steps to limit the amount children get in their diets. (See more advice on reducing exposure.)

Limit your child’s intake of the highest-risk foods. These include not just rice cereal but also rice itself and other products made with it, such as rice puffs and rice cakes. Other foods often high in arsenic include sweet potatoes, apple juice, and grape juice. Eating other whole grains such as oatmeal is a safer option for young children. 

Don’t assume “organic” foods have less arsenic. Many parents purchase organic food because they believe the products are safer. But at least when it comes to heavy metals, as CR’s recent and previous tests have shown, organic products don’t necessarily have lower levels. 

Be wary of claims that imply a product is safer. On Feb. 17, New York Attorney General James issued a letter (PDF) demanding that baby food company Holle USA stop advertising its baby foods as being “lead free” and having “[n]o detectable traces of heavy metals.” Lab testing ordered by the attorney general’s office of Holle USA baby food products found detectable levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead.

Feed kids a wide variety of foods. Eating a wide variety of foods can help ensure that your children get the nutrients they need, and it can stop them from overconsuming foods that may have higher levels of heavy metals.