Until MSNBC's Today show wakes you up with the latest news: arsenic has been found in baby formula. And here is the head scratcher: according to researcher B. Jackson and colleagues, the arsenic source is organic sweetener!
Organic Sweetener Full of ArsenicThe source of the arsenic contamination, which has been found in organic cereal bars as well as infant formula, has been traced to "organic brown rice syrup". The organic sweetener is made by a process of enzymatic digestion of brown rice.
Since the organic sweetener relies on organically grown rice, the source is likely not agricultural control products used on the rice itself (barring organic cheaters, of course). But many other sources could be suspect; some of the most likely include:
- Arsenic contamination of water used in growing or processing the brown rice syrup,
- Arsenic-based pest control used in areas where the brown rice is stored (downstream from the organically certified rice farming), or
- Heavy metal contamination of activated charcoal used to purify and decolorize the syrup.
Given that sweetener constitutes only a fraction of the final product, and inorganic arsenic levels were found up to 6 times the EPA safe drinking water limit* in baby formula and 17 times the limit in high energy cereal bars, the brown rice syrup itself must be contaminated at relatively high levels of inorganic arsenic. (*There is no legal limit for arsenic in foods.)
Blood Sugar Roller-coasterThe finding of "organic" infant formula with brown rice syrup as a primary ingredient exposes a further hole in the regulatory system for foods. Organic high energy bars (with 17X arsenic levels) use organic brown rice syrup because it consists of 45% maltose, 3% glucose and 52% maltotriose. Maltose and maltotriose are made up of two and three glucoses each. All of these three sugars have a glycemic index (GI) (measuring the speed at which the sugars enter the bloodstream) higher than table sugar!
While this might be appropriate for high energy bars, research for this article indicates that the effects of a high-GI induced blood-sugar rollercoaster on infant and child development is not well understood. In adults, high-GI foods have been linked to type 2 diabetes.
The incredibly high demand for energy in the early stages of growth may make this irrelevant, but studies do suggest that infant health is affected by the types of sugars consumed in breast milk or formula. One has to wonder: should we be experimenting on our babies with the sugars in infant formula, regardless of cost or organic considerations?
Of course, infants with lactose intolerance require special accomodation, but the parent seeking a healthy alternative to breast-feeding can be lured into buying an "organic" formula without a full understanding of the impact of the choice on their child's development.
Avoiding ArsenicLook for responses from both the FDA and the organic brown rice sugar industry in the coming days. The FDA will certainly attempt to calm people (after all the safe limit for drinking water includes a safety factor of 100, so 6X and 17X concentrations are not immediately dangerous). The brown rice syrup folks will have to find the contamination, get their acts in order, and keep an eye open for federal regulations -- which in the wake of one food contamination scandal after another may finally get the attention they deserve.
Consumers can look for "brown rice sugar" or "brown rice syrup" on labels, choosing products that do not contain these sweeteners -- at least until it appears the process has improved to ensure that organic means free of hazardous contaminants, as people should be able to expect.