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Babies who eat rice have higher urinary arsenic levels

Do more to cut babies’ exposure to arsenic during critical phase of development

Louise Prime

Tuesday, 26 April 2016

Babies who ate rice and rice products had higher concentrations of arsenic in their urine than babies who ate no rice-containing foods, research has shown. The authors behind the study,* published today in JAMA Pediatrics, said that more should be done to reduce babies’ exposure to arsenic during this “critical phase of development”.

Rice is commonly used as a first food when weaning babies, but concerns have been raised that its arsenic content may exceed levels recommended by various guidelines around the world, for example the new European Union regulations of 100ng/g for products aimed at infants. Exposure while in the womb and in infancy may be associated with adverse effects on foetal growth, and on babies’ and children’s immune and neurodevelopmental outcomes.

Because of these concerns, researchers in the US set out to determine both how often babies ate rice and rice-containing foods in their first year of life, and the babies’ level of exposure to arsenic.

They followed up 759 baby boys and girls born between 2011 and 2014, to mothers taking part in the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study, via telephone interviews every four months until the babies reached 12 months old. At that point, they assessed the babies’ dietary intake over the past week – whether they had eaten rice cereal, white or brown rice, foods sweetened with brown rice syrup, or rice-based foods including snacks and cereal bars.

Beginning in 2103 the researchers collected urine samples from the babies as well as a 3-day food diary. They were able to obtain more detailed information on diet and total urinary arsenic for 129 babies, and on urinary arsenic species for 48 babies.

They found that of all 759 babies, most (80%) had started eating rice in some form before they reached a year old, and almost two-thirds (64%) had begun between 4 and 6 months old. At 12 months old, 43% of the babies had eaten some type of rice product in the past week; 13% ate white rice and 10% ate brown rice; and the average frequency was one to two servings a week. A quarter (24%) of the babies ate food made with rice, or sweetened with rice syrup, in the past week, at an average of five to six servings a week; and, based on food diaries, more than half (55%) had had rice in some form in the two days before they gave a urine sample.

Based on 129 urine samples taken at 12 months old, the researchers found that urinary arsenic concentrations were higher in those babies who ate rice, or foods mixed with rice, than in babies who ate no rice. Urinary arsenic concentrations were twice as high in babies who ate white or brown rice than in babies who ate no rice products. The study authors found the highest arsenic concentrations of all in the urine of babies who ate baby rice cereal; and levels in babies who ate rice snacks were almost double the levels in babies who ate no rice at all.

The study authors pointed out that as well as being more highly exposed to arsenic, children also seem to be far more sensitive to its potential carcinogenic effects and have a heightened risk for adverse growth, adverse immune response, and adverse neurodevelopmental outcomes, even at relatively low levels of exposure.

They concluded: “Our findings indicate that intake of rice cereal and other rice-containing foods, such as rice snacks, contribute to infants’ arsenic exposure and suggest that efforts should be made to reduce arsenic exposure during this critical phase of development.”

* Karagas MR, Punshon T, Sayarath V et al. Association of rice and rice-product consumption with arsenic exposure early in life. JAMA Pediatr. Published online April 25, 2016. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2016.0120.

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