Arsenic in Baby Cereal? Yikes

A baby’s transition to solid food is a very exciting time for most parents. It’s also one that can be infused with anxiety. Parents question, “what’s the right time?”, “what’s the right food?”, “how much/ how often do I offer solid food?”.  Many parents start with cereal as the first food or one of the first foods. My youngest ate oatmeal. Sometimes I ground it myself (rolled oats in a clean coffee grinder) and sometimes I bought a box. But, he did not eat the many meals of rice cereal that his older sister did. In between the two, news reports came out that rice tends to be tainted with arsenic. Yes, arsenic. Neurotoxin. No safe level. Arsenic.

The news came and went about five years ago. There were exposés on both apple juice and rice (Remember Dr. Oz?). But, the arsenic is still there. A non-profit organization, Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), recently tested 105 baby cereals from across the country, including baby cereal purchased by the Ecology Center in Detroit. Rice cereals, including organic varieties, were found to have six times higher levels of arsenic than the other cereals.

I was disappointed to read in the report, Arsenic in 9 Brands of Infant Cereal, that they “found no evidence to suggest that any brand has reduced arsenic levels in rice cereal to amounts comparable to those found in other types of cereal, despite at least five years of significant public attention to the issue that has included widespread consumer alerts and a proposed federal action level.”

Arsenic is a heavy metal, which is in the soil due to past practices. Arsenic was historically used as a pesticide. Other practices such as mining can also lead to arsenic in the soil. Rice plants are particularly adept at pulling arsenic out of the soil. There are practices that farmers and manufacturers can do reduce the arsenic level in rice. But, since there is no regulatory or public pressure to do, they have not, for the most part.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration and other experts recommend manufacturers and growers source rice from fields with lower arsenic levels in soil, grow it with natural soil additives that reduce arsenic uptake by the roots, grow rice strains less prone to arsenic uptake, rinse rice or prepare it with excess water that is poured off, and blend it with lower arsenic grains in multi-grain products.

The results of the study made me glad about my choice of oatmeal for my youngest. It, as well as barley cereal, tested as having the least arsenic. These two cereals are also recommended by the American Academy for Pediatrics (AAP) for babies’ first food. Even multigrain, which often includes rice and is also recommended by AAP, had arsenic levels significantly lower than rice.

If you are a rice lover and eat it at home, University of Davenport has released an infographic on the subject. They suggest rinsing rice before cooking to help remove arsenic. Basmati is one of the varieties that is less prone to uptake arsenic from the soil and thus has lower arsenic content. And ironically, the less nutrient-dense white rice has less arsenic as well. HBBF suggests trying other grains such as protein-rich millet or quinoa. And remember to find snack options that are rice free. Snacks likely to be high in arsenic include puffed rice, rice cakes, rice milk.

Since processed apple products (juice and applesauce) tend to have higher arsenic levels, experts recommend whole fruit instead. For some reason, the apple issue had fallen off my radar. My kids can eat half a jar of applesauce in one sitting. Spending $2 - $3 per jar seemed like a good deal because it saved hours of hand peeling for a batch of homemade applesauce. Guess who is gifting herself a crank apple peeler/ corer for the holidays (And letting the kids play with the new “toy” by cranking the handle)?

As parents, we do our best to raise healthy children with the knowledge that we have. I can’t go back and change what my daughter’s first solid food was. But, I can make new choices for my children’s meals today. And I will urge Gerber, the largest maker of baby cereal in the U.S., to do what they need to help today’s parents and babies have arsenic-free cereal options.

Sign the petition.

Read the report. 

Learn more about what you can do.

Published on December 27, 2017