Sweet Arsenic

Today the news is buzzing with concerns that brown rice syrup, even the organic varieties, are tainted with what they are calling significantly high levels of arsenic. The study, “Arsenic, Organic Foods, and Brown Rice Syrup” was released in Environmental Health Perspectives, a peer-reviewed open access journal published by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. This study by Brian P. Jackson, Vivien F. Taylor, Margaret R. Karagas, Tracy Punshon & Kathryn L. Cottingham was submitted last October and published online today. This is a concern for many Moms because brown rice syrup is an ingredient in some infant formula. Not a Mom or Dad? Don’t think this affects you? Think again.

Organic brown rice syrup is also an ingredient that many use in baking, including myself. This sticky-sweet “all natural” ingredient, available at health food stores like Whole Foods, is used to sweeten baked goods including granola bars and nut butter bites. Just take a look at any of the so-called healthy living blogs (HLBs) out there, and you’ll probably see a recipe or two with brown rice syrup listed as an ingredient.

Not limited to just homemade baked goodies, it is a popular ingredient in many natural granola bars, fruit & nut bars, energy bars, breakfast bars and rice milk. If you buy any gluten-free packaged goods, chances are brown rice syrup is in it.

Being a runner, when reading the recent news stories, Clif Shot Bloks immediately come to mind. Organic brown rice syrup is the first ingredient in these and many other energy gels. For the last few years I’ve enjoyed my share of these chewy, gummy blocks (or “bloks” as they call them). Margarita is my flavor of choice, the one that has enough salt and sour to make your mouth pucker just a bit. Knowing that these little bites of fuel that I take while running, an activity to be healthy, may not be healthy is unfortunate. To be fair to Clif Bar & Company, the article does not state which of the brands they tested had arsenic in them. To quote ABC News:

“Jackson and his colleagues also reported elevated arsenic levels in some brown rice-sweetened cereal bars, energy bars and energy “shots” consumed by endurance athletes, according to a study published today in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives.”

Several brands make energy “shots” so it could be any company, I mention Clif because that is a product that I consume, am familiar with and I know that it does contain organic brown rice syrup.

Although the results of this study are alarming, it comes as no surprise due to recent findings on arsenic in rice (and apple juice). And with more and more people developing (or being diagnosed with) an intolerance to gluten, they are turning to products made with rice in the form of rice flour or rice syrup. The increase of gluten-free, rice-based products on the market are even appealing to those who do not have a gluten intolerance, and we as Americans are consuming more and more of these products.

From the Chicago Tribune:

“The researchers studied 29 cereal bars and high energy bars and found 22 listed rice-based ingredients — including organic brown rice syrup, rice flour, rice grain or rice flakes – among the top five ingredients.”

Let’s keep in mind that arsenic is found in trace amounts in many foods, not limited to just rice. However, the products with rice or rice syrup as an ingredient happen to test higher than most. Interestingly enough, In the US, arsenic is regulated by the EPA in our water, and is even regulated in treated wood that we use for decking materials, but not regulated in the food we eat.

As a consumer, what do we do with this information? Do we eliminate or reduce all products made from brown rice syrup, or even rice, from our diets? Do we dig deeper into research, request additional testing to confirm the findings? Do we want to get the FDA involved in regulating arsenic levels in food? The FDA is a sticky subject with many, as sticky as the organic brown rice syrup in question.

For now, I’ll take the approach of educating myself more on the topic. It is all too easy to get wrapped up in the frenzy that the media creates. Everyday we are being told that something is bad for us, scared by the news outlets, I hate to make drastic changes on little information. After all, arsenic is a naturally occurring element, one that we most likely ingest through water (in much smaller amounts, hopefully) everyday. What I do know is that there are an increasing number of studies finding that rice and rice products have elevated levels of arsenic and I do know that I wish to become a more informed consumer. I would like to see the full data from the study, including products tested. I’m a factual person and like to know all the details before forming an opinion or lifestyle change.

In the meantime, here is some additional information on arsenic from the American Cancer Society to learn more about what arsenic is, and how it affects the body.

Does the news of arsenic in rice, juice and now rice syrup alarm you? Will you be checking ingredient lists and cutting back on your consumption until more information is found?

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Categories: Food, Health | Tags: , , | 2 Comments

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2 thoughts on “Sweet Arsenic

  1. Scary. Glad I only have 3 more pkgs of Shot Bloks! Don’t use them much, since you know my fav is CarbBoom — and they doesn’t use brown rice syrup (they use tapioca syrup). KIND bars are also almost my exclusive favor when it comes to grab ‘n go kinds of snacks + they use honey. Not sure what the muesli bars I brought along on our Starved Rock trip were made with; but, I thought they weren’t that good anyway. This is a good reminder to try to keep away from pkged foods — or limit them — as much as possible. More and more, I think we need to stop importing food products from China (yes, I’m assuming the rice for the syrup is produced there).

    Terrific, important post on this issue. I’ve passed the link along…

  2. Pingback: Spicy Stuffed Peppers « Running on Cloud Nine

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