Is There Arsenic In Your Energy Bar?

Detail from United States Geological Survey test results map

Like to avoid ingesting carcinogens?  Then check out this new arsenic study published yesterday in Environmental Health Perspectives.  Or if you'd rather avoid slogging through peer-reviewed science-speak, here's the gist:

We've known for a long time that it's not good to consume arsenic (it's a carcinogen!).  As a result, the EPA established an arsenic threshold for drinking water of 10 parts per billion (ppb). (FDA enforces the same limit for bottled water.)  But arsenic regulatory limits don't exist for food! "Well that's ok; just keep the old-timey rat poison away from food processing facilities and we'll be fine, right?"  Wrong!  Certain plants can take up arsenic from the soil; when you eat these plants (or foods made from them), you ingest the arsenic.  (Arsenic can also exist in meat if, say, the animal's feed was laced with arsenicals - which is a common practice by industrial poultry producers.)

Rice is among the plants that efficiently absorb arsenic.  And in the US, it's often grown on old cotton fields, where heavy use of arsenical pesticides was once the norm.  This does not lead to super-happy fun times. Instead, as scientists from Dartmouth College report in this study, it leads to some startlingly high concentrations of arsenic in foods that contain organic brown rice syrup (OBRS), a sweetener often used as an alternative to high fructose corn syrup.  Here are the downer highlights:

  • Two infant formulas containing OBRS as a primary ingredient contained levels of inorganic arsenic that were at or above the 10 ppb US drinking water standard.
  • 22 energy or cereal bars listing OBRS, rice flour, rice grain or rice flakes as one of the top five ingredients had arsenic levels ranging from 23 to 128 ppb.
  • Three energy "shots" (energy gels used by Serious Athletes) containing OBRS were tested; one had arsenic levels of 84 ppb, while the other two had concentrations of 171 ppb.

The scientists sum things up nicely in the last line of their journal article: "we conclude that there is an urgent need for regulatory limits on arsenic in food."

Lead researcher, Brian Jackson, offered some insight into the study results in an outstanding article published by Consumer Reports.  Jackson recommends that individuals try to limit foods known to contain arsenic (e.g., rice, rice-fortified foods and certain juices), noting that those who eat a great deal of rice or gluten-free foods (which are often fortified with rice) should try to vary their diets.  He also stresses the importance of limiting infants' consumption of formula in which OBRS is a primary ingredient.  Fortunately, the researchers only found two formulas made with OBRS - but be sure to double check labels; infants are particularly vulnerable to the ill effects of exposure to arsenic and other contaminants.

Bummer?  Definitely.  But allow me to end on an uncharacteristically optimistic note to avoid ruining your weekend: at least research like this thrusts food safety into the public consciousness. Hopefully the report will ultimately help build support for the Apple-Juice Act, which would limit the levels of arsenic and lead in fruit juices.  Maybe it'll even inspire a common-sense ban on arsenicals in poultry feed, because clearly, we don't need any additional arsenic ending up in our water or soil.