Arsenic in rice research published

Thursday 21 May 2009

The Agency has today published results from two studies: arsenic levels in rice drinks and one on cooking methods to reduce arsenic levels in rice. As a result of the rice drink study, the Agency recommends that toddlers and young children should not have rice drinks, often known as rice milk, as a replacement for cows’ milk, breast milk or infant formula.

The rice drink study followed concerns about results from a study published last year that measured arsenic levels in these types of drinks. The research published today examined 60 samples of rice drinks and found low levels of arsenic in all of them (see The science behind the story section below).

The level of total arsenic ranged from 0.010 – 0.034 milligram/kilogram and the levels of inorganic – the more harmful – form of arsenic ranged from 0.005 – 0.020 milligram/kilogram. The proportion of inorganic arsenic in the rice drink samples ranged from 48 – 63%. None of the results were over the current legal limit (but see the Current regulations section below).

In the second study, researchers looked at the effect of cooking methods on arsenic content of rice. The Agency is not advising anyone to change the way they cook rice as a result of this study as the impact on the overall dietary intake of arsenic from different cooking methods is minimal.

What the Agency advises

As a precaution, toddlers and young children between 1 and 4.5 years old should not have rice drinks as a replacement for cows’ milk, breast milk, or infant formula. This is because they will then drink a relatively large amount of it, and their intake of arsenic will be greater than that of older children and adults relative to their bodyweight. 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. A daily half pint or 280 millilitres of rice drink could double the amount of the more harmful form of arsenic they consume each day.

There is no immediate risk to children who have been consuming rice drinks and it is unlikely that there would have been any long-term harmful effects but to reduce further exposure to arsenic parents should stop giving these drinks to toddlers and young children.

If your child is allergic to cows’ milk, you are strongly advised to seek advice from your health professional or dietitian on suitable replacements.

Other groups of people do not need to change their diet because their exposure to inorganic arsenic from rice drinks is lower relative to their bodyweight.

Children under a year old should drink breast milk or infant formula milk. Cows’ milk or alternatives are not suitable as a drink until an infant is 12 months old.

The research published today does not affect the Agency’s advice on any other weaning foods. Advice from a survey in 2007, which included baby rice and other rice products, concluded that these foods did not have levels of inorganic arsenic that caused concern.

Further information:

For further information on this survey, please contact: arsenic_enquiries@foodstandards.gsi.gov.uk.

The science behind the story

Arsenic is widely distributed in the environment. It occurs in soil, water – both sea and fresh – and in almost all plants and animal tissues. As a result, arsenic occurs naturally at very low levels in many foods and it is not possible to avoid it completely. How harmful the arsenic is depends on the chemical form in which it is present. The organic form is less harmful than the inorganic form which can cause cancer by harming our genetic material (DNA). Rice and rice products have higher levels of the inorganic form of arsenic compared with other food. The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) (an independent scientific committee that provides advice to the Food Standards Agency) has concluded that people should consume as little of this form of arsenic as reasonably practicable.

Current regulations

There are no EU-wide regulations for arsenic levels in food. In the UK, there is a general limit of 1 mg/kg (milligram per kilogram) for arsenic in food. Separate limits apply to certain food categories. For instance, ready-to-drink non-alcoholic beverages have a limit of 0.1 mg/kg. Copies of the regulations are available from the Office of Public Sector Information.

The UK regulations were set in 1959 before it was known that inorganic arsenic can cause cancer.

Discussions have started in Europe to assess the risks to human health from consuming arsenic in foodstuffs. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been asked for its opinion on the risk to human health associated with arsenic in food and EFSA’s risk assessment is expected to be published in September 2009. Following this, it is possible that EU-wide regulations will be set for arsenic levels in food.

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