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Illegal levels of arsenic in rice-based baby food discovered by Belfast scientists

Parents should avoid giving rice to young children, scientists in Belfast have said, after a study found almost three quarters of rice-based products sold as baby food contained illegal levels of arsenic.

A maximum level of arsenic allowed in rice used for baby food was introduced by the EU in January 2016 to reduce children’s exposure to the harmful toxin. But when researchers at Queen’s University, Belfast tested 73 different rice-based products often given to babies, they found almost 80% of rice crackers, 61% of baby rice and 32% of rice cereals flouted the regulations.

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The researchers tested 13 types of baby rice, 29 packets of rice cakes and 31 types of rice cereal from nine different brands or manufacturers, from 17 different shops in Belfast.

They also compared the level of arsenic in urine samples from babies who were breast- or formula-fed before and after weaning.Inorganic arsenic contaminates rice while it is growing as a result of industrial toxins, and pesticides and can impact the development of young children, professor Andy Meharg, who led the study, said. “We’re talking about immune development, growth, IQ. They’re all impacted at the levels of consumption you’d get from rice consumption,” he added.

“I’m not scaremongering. EU laws have been passed and what we’re doing is saying these laws aren’t being met.”

Among the products specifically marketed for children, 73% contained more than the EU limit 0.1 milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of rice, while 56% exceeded this.

Earlier this year, professor Meharg raised concerns about harmful levels of the chemical left in rice cooked through a common method — simply boiling it in a pan until the water has steamed out.

By testing three different ways of cooking rice, the biologist found the best way to remove arsenic was to soak the rice overnight, which reduces toxin levels by 80%.

While Arsenic is carcinogenic, the professor said “you’d have to eat rice over your lifetime for the excess cancer risk” and young children are more likely to be impacted by the chemicals contained in their food.

“Babies have five times higher exposure to inorganic arsenic through their weaned foods, which are primarily rice-based, than before they are weaned,” he said. “There are warnings on most cartons of rice milk specifically,” he added. “They say ‘not suitable for children under the age of five years’.

“If rice milk has a warning, why shouldn’t it be done for other rice products?”

Concern among parents about children’s gluten intake means rice-based baby foods are more popular than ever, but families should consider alternatives such as oat porridge instead of rice porridge, the professor added.

Mary Fewtrell, a professor of paediatric nutrition at UCL, told The Independent: “Because of infants’ small size, they can be exposed to high levels of inorganic arsenic on a per body weight basis compared to an older child or adult”.

“So it’s wise that the products they consume should contain as little inorganic arsenic as can be achieved.”

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