Having heard headlines about arsenic in baby food products (baby rice, rice cakes and rice based cereals) I have been asked by parents whether they should stop giving their children rice.
Firstly when we think arsenic we think poison. Yes, arsenic is a carcinogen and we shouldn’t have too much of it but this is not a case of poison being added to baby foods. Arsenic is found naturally in the soil where rice is grown and so rice does contain arsenic. Most of this is found in the bran section (which is removed in processing white rice). We have long known this.
Back to the headlines; the research study which prompted the headline critically falls down on a number of levels – the very small number of people studied, not stating whether the arsenic levels in the babies’ urine samples were toxic or just raised compared with pre-weaning, and the lack of evidence that it is indeed rice based products which have caused this rise.
There are regulations around how much arsenic is allowed in water and food within the EU, although the latter only came into effect in January 2016, a month before the samples for the study were purchased. There are also already recommendations around rice milk for the under 5s – they should be avoided and an alternative milk used.
So, what do we do with this information? The current evidence shows it is safe for babies and young children to eat rice products (not drink rice milk though). They should be consumed as part of a balanced diet. Baby rice is a useful food in weaning but if weaning at 6 months we should be starting with a variety of foods including meat, fish, dairy foods, eggs, vegetables, fruit and starchy foods. Rice based cereal products are only one of the many suitable cereal products baby can have so you could choose an alternative or chop and change – just make sure it is age appropriate. My personal view on rice cakes – there are far more nutritious snacks to give children, which are not full of air, some of which are also much cheaper. Cubes of cheese, salad sticks and homous, yoghurt, homemade pancakes (with less sugar), plain popcorn, and fruit are a few examples.