Parents should avoid giving rice to young children, scientists have said, after a new study found almost three quarters of rice-based products sold as baby food contain illegal levels of arsenic.
A maximum level of arsenic allowed in rice used for baby food was introduced by the EU in January 2016 to reduce children’s exposure to the harmful toxin.
But when researchers at Queen’s University Belfast tested 73 different rice-based products often given to babies, they found almost 80 per cent of rice crackers, 61 per cent of baby rice and 32 per cent of rice cereals flouted these regulations.
Inorganic arsenic contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins and pesticides and can impact the development of young children, Andy Meharg, who led the study, told The Independent.
“We’re talking about immune development, growth, IQ. They’re all impacted at the levels of consumption you’d get from rice consumption,” he said. “I’m not scaremongering. EU laws have been passed, and what we’re doing is saying these laws aren’t being met.”
Among the products specifically marketed for children, 73 per cent contained more than the EU limit 0.1 milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of rice, while 56 per cent exceeded this overall.
Earlier this year, Professor Meharg raised concerns about harmful levels of the chemical left in rice cooked through a common method – simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out.
By testing three different ways of cooking rice, the biologist found the best way to remove arsenic is to soak the rice overnight, which reduces toxin levels by 80 per cent.
Arsenic is carcinogenic, said Professor Meharg, but “you’d have to eat rice over your lifetime for the excess cancer risk” and young children are more likely to be impacted by the chemicals contained in their food.
“Babies have five times higher exposure to inorganic arsenic through their weaned foods, which are primarily rice-based, than before they are weaned,” he said.
“There are warnings on most cartons of rice milk specifically. They say not suitable for children under the age of five years. If rice milk has warning, why shouldn’t it be done for other rice products?”
Concern among parents about their children’s gluten intake meant rice-based baby foods were more popular than ever, but parents should consider alternatives such as oat porridge instead of rice porridge, he added.
The researchers tested 13 types of baby rice, 29 packets of rice cakes, and 31 types of rice cereal from nine different brands or manufacturers from 17 different shops in Belfast.
They also compared the level of arsenic in urine samples from babies who were breast- or formula-fed before and after weaning.
Mary Fewtrell, a professor of paediatric nutrition at UCL, told The Independent: “Because of infants’ small size, they can be exposed to high levels of inorganic arsenic on a per body weight basis compared to an older child or adult, so it's wise that the products they consume should contain as little inorganic arsenic as can be achieved.”