When it comes to introducing babies to solid foods, rice cereal is often first. And rice is a staple in many baby and toddler foods.
But, as we've reported, multiple studies have found that rice-based foods contain traces of arsenic, and sometimes levels are surprisingly high.
Now comes a new study published in JAMA Pediatrics that finds babies who are fed rice cereals — and other rice-based snacks — have higher concentrations of arsenic in their urine compared with infants who are not fed rice.
"The highest arsenic concentrations were among those who consumed infant rice cereal," says researcher Margaret Karagas, an epidemiologist at Dartmouth's Geisel School of Medicine. "Among those [babies] who ate rice snacks, levels were about double [that of] non-rice eaters."
The study was based on data from the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study. The researchers analyzed the eating habits of about 750 infants of mothers enrolled in the study.
"We knew rice cereal was a common first food, but we didn't really know how common it was or what age it was introduced," Karagas says. The study found that, by age 1, about 80 percent of babies had been introduced to rice cereal, usually starting at 4 to 6 months. "We were surprised by the number of infants consuming rice products," Karagas says.
The potential health effects of regularly consuming infant rice cereal — and other rice-based products —containing traces of arsenic are unclear. But the authors write in their paper that "emerging epidemiologic evidence suggests that [arsenic] exposure in utero and during early life may be associated with adverse health effects" on immune system and brain development.
Earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration proposed a limit of 100 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. Inorganic arsenic is the type that public health officials worry about the most.
"Our actions are driven by our duty to protect the public health and our careful analysis of the data and the emerging science," Susan Mayne, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in a statement on the proposed limit.
The FDA's statement points to research that links exposure to inorganic arsenic early in life to decreased performance on certain developmental tests.
The FDA tested 76 samples of infant rice cereals from retail stores for concentrations of inorganic arsenic. The agency found that about half of the samples contained levels of inorganic arsenic that were higher than 100 ppb, but most exceeded the proposed limit only slightly.
So, what advice does the agency have for parents? Rice doesn't need to be the only — or first — source of grain in your baby's diet, the FDA says. Other sources include oats, wheat and barley.
"For toddlers, provide a well-balanced diet, which includes a variety of grains," the agency says.
This advice is seconded by the American Academy of Pediatricians. A wide variety of foods "will decrease [a] child's exposure to arsenic from rice," concludes the AAP's advice to parents. And as the AAP notes, other foods — like finely chopped meats or vegetable purees — "are equally acceptable as a first food."