Pediatric Experts Voice Concern Over Feeding Children Rice

January 09, 2015

A recent consensus statement written by international pediatric nutrition experts has recommended that infants and young children avoid rice-based drinks.  This is due to the fact that some types of rice contain large concentrations of inorganic arsenic, a first-level carcinogen.  There is no safe level of intake, because any exposure is risky.  The longer the exposure to inorganic arsenic, the more toxic its effects.

The newly published report reminds us that rice and derived products such as starch, flour and syrup are used to fortify different foods, including drinks, purees, and snacks.  These are foods often fed to infants and young children.  Since most of the inorganic arsenic in rice is concentrated in the outer bran layers, the report also highlights that potentially, the most harmful type of exposure is that which comes from products manufactured from brown rice.  

To reduce the harmful effects from arsenic exposure in rice-based foods, experts recommend the following:

  • Avoid rice-based drinks for infants and young children.

  • Children should diversify the grains in their diet, selecting from oat, maize, millet, wheat, quinoa, etc.

  • When cooking rice, rinse the grains thoroughly first, and consider cooking it in excess water, throwing off the surplus.  Also remember that polished (white) rice has less arsenic than the brown variety.

Although the report pertains specifically to the pediatric risk from arsenic in rice, remember that inorganic arsenic can also be found in other sources, such as juices and water. While the U.S. government monitors arsenic content in drinking water, unfortunately there is no strict oversight when it comes to the other foodstuffs.  This has led many experts, including the authors of aforementioned consensus statement, to recommend that arsenic content become strictly monitored and regulated by global authorities.   If you’d like to learn more, I found this summary at Consumer Reports.org very helpful.

UPDATE: This blog seemed to spark a lot of questions, so I thought I’d address them here. Most of the information below can be found in the sources cited above, but I think that highlighting a few key points will help.

  • The rice cultivated in certain geographic areas has higher inorganic arsenic content.  Studies have shown that rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, Missouri, and Texas (which accounts for the majority of rice production in the U.S.) has far more inorganic arsenic than rice cultivated elsewhere.  On the other hand, rice from India, Pakistan, and California has less.  Inorganic arsenic content may be high in some regions, due to the use of pesticides, fertilizers, and other chemicals, which seep into the soil and water.  Remember that inorganic arsenic is highly soluble in water.  Since rice is grown in paddy fields (fields flooded with water), it’s the outer husk (bran) of the rice that gets the most contamination. 

  • Cooking methods matter.  In East Asia, where rice is often a staple in a child’s diet, exposure to inorganic arsenic is likely reduced by the traditional methods used to prepare the grain.  Age-old methods used in countries like India involve thoroughly washing rice first, and then cooking it in a lot of surplus water (which is later drained off). 

  • Rice cereal doesn’t have to be baby’s first food.  Especially in the U.S., parents have often chosen rice cereal as their baby’s first solid food.  There are some parents who even add rice cereal to their infant’s bottles.  Given what we now know about inorganic arsenic, parents should consider choosing other foods such as fruits or vegetable or other grains.  Although rice can still be fed, it’s probably best to reduce the frequency.

  • Those following gluten-free diets needs to be especially careful.  When gluten is not a dietary option, the intake of rice often increases by default.  Choosing a more diverse selection of gluten-free grains could greatly reduce our risk of exposure to inorganic arsenic.

  • Be a savvy and smart shopper.  Currently, companies are neither required to inform us about inorganic arsenic in their products, nor to try and reduce the content.  Until we have better oversight and regulation, it remains our responsibility to ask questions and stay informed.

Topics: Kids, Nutrition