Arsenic in rice snacks above EU safe level for kids, study

Thursday, 23 January, 2020

Arsenic in rice snacks above EU safe level for kids, study

A study by RMIT University has revealed that rice snacks for kids found in Australian supermarkets contain arsenic at levels above European safety guidelines.

While rice-based products have become a popular alternative for children with gluten intolerances, the RMIT study revealed that 75% of rice-based products tested had concentrations of arsenic that exceeded the EU guideline for safe rice consumption for babies and toddlers. Published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the findings from the study revealed that Australian children who eat large amounts of rice-based food may be exposed to dangerous amounts of arsenic.

Suzie Reichman, Senior researcher, Associate Professor and environmental toxicologist at RMIT University said the research used European guidelines because she said Australia does not have safety standards specifically for children’s rice consumption.

“While all the products we tested meet Australian guidelines, these do not reflect the latest scientific understanding on how arsenic affects the body. Children are far more vulnerable to the long-term toxic effect of metals like arsenic, but our rice guidelines are based on adults. The guidelines are also based on out-of-date dietary habits, when rice was generally eaten less often by Australian families. This study shows the need to develop new standards specifically for children and ensure our guidelines are in line with what we now know about safe rice consumption,” Reichman said.

Arsenic is a naturally occurring metal found in air, soil and groundwater that comes in organic and inorganic forms. Organic arsenic is relatively safe, but inorganic arsenic is a carcinogen that has been linked to cancers of the bladder and skin, with long-term exposure to inorganic arsenic dangerous to health. As rice plants accumulate arsenic more than similar crops, rice safety guidelines aim to minimise potential exposure.

“Rice can be safely eaten as part of a well-rounded, balanced diet, but if it’s a child’s main source of carbohydrates, that could be a problem. As a general rule, we recommend that children under five eat rice in moderation and parents should avoid serving rice at every meal, to minimise the risk of exposure to arsenic,” Reichman said.

Australian rice guidelines are for total arsenic (organic and inorganic) and set at a maximum level of 1 mg/kg, over three times higher than the standard for total arsenic set by the World Health Organisation of 0.3 mg/kg. EU guidelines for infants and young children focus on inorganic arsenic and set a maximum level of 0.1 mg/kg.

The RMIT study tested 39 rice products for babies and toddlers found in Australian supermarkets, including milk formula powder, cereal, crackers and pasta made from brown, white, organic and non-organic rice. Findings revealed that 75% of the products had high levels of inorganic arsenic, above the EU standard for children, with more inorganic arsenic found in brown rice crackers than white rice crackers, possibly due to higher concentrations of arsenic in the rice bran removed in white rice.

The research was part of a final-year capstone project by student Zhuyun GU, who is currently undertaking a PhD at RMIT.

“The research completed by Zhuyun was of such high standard that it was accepted for publication in a peer-reviewed journal and highlighted in its special edition focusing on arsenic exposure in the environment and human health. This work is an important contribution to our understanding of safety issues around rice in our diets, and supports the need for updating arsenic guidelines in Australia,” Reichman said.

Image credit: © Productions

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