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July 24, 2018

Brown Rice Syrup and Arsenic

by Anne Paddock

If you’re the least bit health conscious, then you’re probably a label reader which also means when looking for ready-made sweets, you search for alternative ingredients to refined sugar, corn syrup, or high fructose corn syrup.  So, when you see brown rice syrup listed as an ingredient in energy bars or other treats, you may be somewhat satisfied thinking you’re making a wiser choice.  But, you need to think again because brown rice syrup has been called out for having “high” levels of arsenic – a chemical element that is often used in the production of pesticides, herbicides, and insecticides (and in the feed for poultry and pigs to prevent disease).

A Group 1A carcinogen (the same as cigarettes or asbestos ), arsenic can be organic (a grey colored metal that naturally occurs in our environment) or inorganic (where it is combined or bound with other elements). Arsenic is colorless, odorless, tasteless and toxic to insects, bacteria and fungi so when used in agriculture, arsenic seeps into the water, soil, and plants which means arsenic is in our food supply. Since arsenic is toxic to humans and linked to a higher risk of cancer of the lung, bladder, and skin, the amount of arsenic in our food and water supply matters.

The body absorbs inorganic arsenic (which many claim is therefore more dangerous because it stays in our body) and urinates out organic arsenic.So, the focus is on the foods that absorb too much arsenic which often includes rice and products made with rice, including brown rice syrup.

The FDA (Food and Drug Administration) charged with protecting the public health, requires the maximum concentration of arsenic in our drinking water to be 10 ppm (parts per billion or one millionth of a gram per liter of water), although maximum concentration levels for arsenic in our food have not been established, except for apple juice when in response to an outcry of high levels of arsenic in imported apple juice, the FDA established an “action level” of 10 ppb for apple juice and a “guidance level” of 100 ppb for infant rice cereal, common foods consumed by young children.

In China, the food standard for arsenic was set at 150 ppb in 2011, according to Wikipedia. And, in Europe, the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority) established limits in 2016 for rice products that include 100 ppb for rice used for the production of food and juice for children, 200 ppb for white rice, 250 ppb for brown rice, and 300 ppb for rice cakes and rice crackers. 

Many consumers and watchdog agencies have called out the FDA for not establishing a legal limit for arsenic in our food and for not eliminating agricultural products containing arsenic. So, it’s up to the consumer to education herself/himself on arsenic levels in our food supply.

Dartmouth’s Department of Earth Science started testing rice products in the US a few years ago and found high levels of arsenic in rice products pointing out that “rice products take up arsenic through the soil because the dangerous substance behaves much like silica, which rice needs to grow.  Brown rice tends to collect arsenic in higher levels, but amounts vary.” Brown rice syrup has been shown to have higher levels of arsenic because large amounts of brown rice are needed to make a syrup, which makes sense given that the more rice used, the more arsenic there is.

The most popular brand of brown rice syrup in the US is Lundberg, the company known for offering a wide variety of rice products. Lundberg makes an organic and non-organic brown rice syrup that was tested by Consumer Reports (click here to read the article) and showed total arsenic levels of 177-193 ppb, inorganic levels of 111-136 ppb, and organic levels of 29-44 ppb. These levels probably explain why Lundberg’s brown rice syrup is not available in grocery stores recently or through on-line retailers. When asked why Lundberg Brown Rice Syrup is out of stock, several retailers said the company is working on re-packaging. This answer raised my BS radar which led me to learn the information reported above.

Lots of bakers are hoping Lundberg is working on growing or obtaining a brown rice with a very low arsenic level (eliminating arsenic completely will be nearly impossible) so that brown rice syrup will be back on the shelves soon. Until then and while the FDA slowly works through the arsenic issues, consumers may want to reconsider how much rice and how many rice products should be consumed, particularly for children.  In addition, alternative sweeteners such as date syrup, barley malt syrup, maple syrup, molasses, sorghum syrup, or a combination of the aforementioned are viable alternatives for brown rice syrup.

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