Arsenic in rice
I have heard some concern about giving rice milk to infants, suggesting it has high levels of Arsenic and so should be avoided. This sounded strange to me and so I thought I would look at the reports and see what was actually going on.
First of all it might be helpful to talk a little about probability and statistics, as this is the science that is being used. We used probability and statistical analysis to give us information for areas of concern or not. So if something is 1% likely, depending on what “it” is we are probably not that worried. Even 10% is still a small possibility (which is 10 times as likely) but 10% is a bigger number and has two digits, so even 11% or 12% starts to make us consider things as being significant. Going back to the 1%, if that were 2% in terms of probability there is very little difference, even though that’s twice the number. We have to remember, at all times, we are comparing 1% and 2% to 100% not comparing 1% to 2%. In this context, the 1% and 2% are not numbers in themselves but are related to a 100% or the whole item or whole situation.
This understanding is vital when we are looking at probability and is perhaps easier to understand by the common graph that is used for probability called a Bell chart (the name is derived from the shape of any probability curve). The top of the curve is the most probable recording but the 1% or 2% is down on the left-right axis.
Much of our food has traces of Arsenic in it so in 2009 the WHO concluded:
The World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN have just announced guidelines for inorganic arsenic in rice: 200 parts per billion for white rice and 400 parts per billion (ppb) for brown rice. Brown rice is higher in inorganic arsenic than white as arsenic is concentrated in the bran that is removed by milling to produce white rice.
Much of the research is done on American sourced rice (presumably products like Uncle Ben’s) and (presumably) rice in UK comes from the India subcontinent. A report done by Aberdeen university makes a interesting distinction:
Research carried out by Professor Jörg Feldmann of the University of Aberdeen has explored the amount and type of arsenic that can be found in rice and rice products and reasons for its occurrence.
Rice contains arsenic because in countries where it’s grown such as India and Bangladesh, it is naturally occurring in the soil and in groundwater which is used for irrigation of rice in the dry season.
The arsenic found in rice can be subcategorised further – one of these categories is inorganic arsenic which is a class I carcinogen which means it can cause cancer.
A study of market bought rice in Aberdeen revealed that levels of inorganic arsenic from rice produced in the USA was much higher than that in rice from India and Bangladesh.
An American research project
The actual readings in rice milk products have been analysed by the Food Standards Agency (FDA) in America:
The FDA has completed a survey of total and inorganic arsenic in 60 samples of rice drinks. Arsenic occurs naturally in a wide range of foods at low levels. The toxicity of arsenic is dependent on the chemical form in which it is present. The organic form is less harmful than the inorganic form, which is known to cause cancer. Most arsenic in the diet is present in the less harmful organic form.
They detected rates way below WHO levels:
- Arsenic was detected in all samples of rice drinks at low concentrations. An average concentration of 0.023 milligram/kilogram of total arsenic and 0.012 milligram/kilogram of inorganic arsenic was found.
.023milligram/kilogram is 23ppb or around a tenth of WHO safe levels.
However they go on to conclude:
- The Agency advises against the substitution of breast milk, infant formula or cows’ milk by rice drinks for toddlers and young children. This is both on nutritional grounds and because such substitution can increase their intake of inorganic arsenic, which should be kept as low as possible. If toddlers and young children (ages 1 – 4.5 years) consume rice drinks instead of breast milk, infant formula or cows’ milk, the Agency estimates that their intake of inorganic arsenic could be increased by up to four fold if combined intakes for high-level consumption of rice drinks at the mean concentration of inorganic arsenic plus average exposure from the rest of the diet are considered.
- For all other consumers of rice drink (with a larger bodyweight than toddlers and young children), exposure to inorganic arsenic is lower and there is no need to change their diet.
- Parents of toddlers and young children who are currently consuming rice drinks because they are allergic to or intolerant of cows’ milk are advised to consult their health professional or dietitian about suitable alternatives to cows’ milk. It has been assumed that infants under 12 months are fed breast milk or infant formula milk, in line with Department of Health advice that cows’ milk, or alternatives, are not suitable as a drink until 12 months old. Rice drink is not a suitable substitute for breast or formula milk at any stage of infancy or early childhood as it is nutritionally inadequate
Interestingly here they are saying cow’s milk is not suitable for children under 1 year old and certainly 100 years ago cow’s milk would not have been given to children in their first year of life. It suggests Rice drink is not a suitable substitute yet there are producers out there that claim differently:
Novarice is a specific infant formula suitable for feeding babies who are suffering from cow’s milk protein allergy or lactose intolerance. It covers all nutritional needs for infants from birth, allowing them a normal growth and development. Its composition, developed with pediatricians, complies with current European regulations governing child nutrition.
Arguing for different levels of sensitivity for infants compared to adults, it is normal for alternative and complimentary practitioners to use a 10:1 ration for babies in utero. That is to raise the significance of something that is not harmful to an adult to be significant for a child. For example many pregnant women will steer away from prescription drugs. This may continue to a lesser degree once the child is in the world. Even within this measure, though, this report seems to discredit the WHO standard. Also looking at the actual measurements of arsenic in milk products (dairy and rice) the range seems to be marginal.
I feel we have to be very careful of reports and their predisposed attitudes, for instance a report funded by:
This work was supported financially by grants P20 ES018175 and P42 ES007373 from the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS), US National Institutes of Health (NIH) and RD-83459901-0 from the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA).
We analyzed 15 infant formulas comprising of 5 main brands. The formulas were further classified as to whether they were dairy- vs. non-dairy based, and whether they contained rice starch. Arsenic totals were then statistically evaluated between these classes for significant differences. Arsenic was detectable in all infant formulas, with values ranging from 2.2–12.6 ng g−1. The mean arsenic concentration was significantly lower in dairy-based formulas than those without dairy…
Yet their table shows no such thing:
The figures in the first column seems to go up and down, in the same range, irrespective of dairy or rice origin. So in fact in probability terms there is no difference and certainly NOT “significantly” as they claim.
How do we use this information?
The problem with “scientific” methods is the scientist never, and can’t, embrace the whole picture, that is just not the method. The use of cow products in UK and USA is BIG BUSINESS. Run by large landowners and multinationals. Cows have always been a problem, whether we are considering the large amount of CO2 pollution and land use to produce beef and beef products, or the diseases that have established themselves in world populations, recently CJD and Foot and Mouth but historically TB. This is before considering how we feed cows and what that feed might contain.
These problems exist not least because the industry has used unnatural selection in breeding to genetically modify the animals. The cows are huge compared to 50 years ago. I have certainly found that many wheat intolerant children can’t tolerate grain fed meat but can cope with organic (pasture fed) meat. This also needs to be understood in the GM debate. When it is argued GM is only doing what nature has done for centuries, well that’s just not what happens with farming or what will happen with GM.
The maths suggest that we cannot look to science as it currently stands to help us decide or, to put that the other way round, science isn’t in a position to make a clear distinction. There is arsenic in all its forms, at similarly low levels, in much of our food.
Rice doesn’t seem to be much different to the other starch products. At the extreme end of the results rice would have twice the concentration of arsenic compared to some other products but, bearing in mind that American grown rice has twice the level of arsenic of rice from Bangladesh, these figures are not figures to base any decisions on. We have to grasp how rice grows, with its feet in water. As a result rice predominantly has the type of arsenic (inorganic) that is more worrying to scientist in a greater degree. However in none of the reports did anything breach any of the world safety standards for arsenic levels. The researchers response is that we should revisit the world levels – and they may be right but that would then challenge a vast range of foods. Certainly fruit juices seem to have very similar levels of arsenic, as do sea foods. It is not surprising that sea foods, living in water, seem to have comparable higher concentrations of inorganic arsenic. All seem to lie within the same, currently thought to be, safe margins even for infants.
I would therefore suggest a more holistic view.
Breast milk is what was designed for our children to thrive on. We are the only animals that regularly look to other mammal’s milk to raise our young. There are wonderful stories about animals being suckered by other animals (wolves and bears and of course Romulus and Remus) but these occurrences are exceptional not the norm.
As the infant lets go of breastfeeding, a varied diet should be introduced. So if for any reason rice milk or rice products forms part of this, then that should be absolutely safe.
We can learn a lot from children who are on the autistic spectrum and in many, but not all, cases establishing a GFCF (wheat and diary free) diet seems to be essential before any effective work can happen. If this is so important here then the same sensitivity to a lesser degree must prevail in all children. So, looking at all the research, for significant number of young children it is less of a risk to general health to have rice milk than it is to have cow’s milk and cow’s milk formula.
I think this fact is what motivates the wording in the reports I have trawled i.e. rice milk is a threat to market share of the cow lobby. That’s is not to say that arsenic isn’t something we shouldn’t try and avoid. It is just that the research work doesn’t deliver the answers it is claiming.
Other dairy products
It is somewhat of a minefield for many families. My own family used local (non pasteurised) goat’s milk. We were very fortunate to find a good source. Goat and sheep products often cause much less problems than cow products. I have spoken in the past directly to St Helen’s, a large Goat milk producer, and felt quite reassured of their processes.
We use mostly organic manures and apply organic principles as much as appropriate throughout our farming operations and have converted some of our land to organic status. Organic crops grown on this land, such as red clover leys, are used as feed for the goats.
However, the conditions required to achieve organic status for goats would not, we believe, be in the best interests of their health.
Goats do not like damp and cold conditions and we keep our goats sheltered in large barns that keep them warm and dry and provide plenty of fresh air and light. They are housed on deep clean straw bedding and fed a well-balanced, fibre-rich diet designed to keep the goats in best of health and produce a quality, mild flavoured milk.
More recently I have found families, particularly in the States, using camel’s milk. I think the bodies “acceptance” is down to the fact sheep, goats and camels have been less “engineered” and have mostly not had antibiotics or hormones to increase yields. However that is no help to those parents where even these milks cause reactions or, in autism, huge digestive and mood problems.
In conclusion, I would certainly not advocate any child having a monoculture diet of any sort. However my clinical experience tells me sometimes this is inevitable (e.g. kids that only eat bake beans) and often this is part of a natural developmental picture.
In a normal mixed diet I can find no impartial evidence to support any more anxiety over rice products compared to other infant products. Even taking the reports outcomes as true the results don’t really raise alarms. Even if the infant was having only rice milk formula as a supplement to breastfeeding, it is only for a short while and can’t be as bad as having all the problems that other supplements may be causing with certain infants. Particularly with children with autism, getting the gut to settle is paramount to making progress.