Concerns about the potential health risks from arsenic in infant rice cereal has prompted the Food and Drug Administration to propose limits for one of America's favorite baby foods.
The FDA is taking steps to reduce inorganic arsenic (the more toxic form) in infant rice cereal. Long recognized as a carcinogen, and absorbed in food crops like rice, recent health data led to the new advice for pregnant women and infants.
In 2016, FDA completed an analysis of evidence linking relatively high levels of inorganic arsenic during pregnancy with adverse pregnancy outcomes. The FDA also found that exposure to arsenic may result in a child's decreased performance on learning and cognitive tests.
Relative to their size, infants consume about three times more rice than adults. At 8 months of age, rice cereal is often the centerpiece of an infant's diet.
Traces of arsenic are present in many foods, including grains, fruits and vegetables, but rice absorbs it more easily than most foods do. Rice cereals have long been one of the first foods given to babies.
The FDA released a draft guidance Friday that proposes an action level, or limit, of 100 parts per billion (ppb) for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal.
The agency tested 76 samples of infant rice cereal from retail stores and found that nearly half met the agency's proposed limit of 100 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic. More than three-quarters of the samples had levels at or below 110 parts per billion.
"The proposed limit is a prudent and achievable step to reduce exposure to arsenic among infants." said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition.
Pregnant women are advised to eat a variety of foods, including varied grains, such as wheat, oats and barley.
Urvashi Rangan, Ph.D., executive director of the Consumer Reports Food Safety & Sustainability Center, which released a report on arsenic levels in rice in 2014, is concerned the proposed limits don't go far enough.
"While Consumer Reports is pleased to see that the FDA has finally proposed a limit on arsenic in infant rice cereal, and it is close to the level we recommended more than three years ago, we remain concerned that so many other rice-based products consumed by children and adults remain without any standards at all. This is particularly true of children's ready-to-eat cereals."
The FDA acknowledges the wide range of arsenic found in rice and rice products and wants food makers to get their products from sources with the lowest inorganic arsenic.
In a statement to NBC News, Gerber says its cereals already meet the FDA Guidance levels.
"We have worked closely with our trusted rice supplier and their growers as well as researchers from agricultural universities to achieve some of the lowest levels of this element in U.S. grown rice," the statement said. "Through these combined actions we already meet the level proposed by the FDA."
What are parents to do?
The FDA offers the following advice to parents and caregivers of infants. It is consistent with advice given by the American Academy of Pediatrics:
- Feed your baby iron-fortified cereals to be sure she or he is receiving enough of this important nutrient.
- Rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source of nutrients for your baby, but it shouldn't be the only source, and does not need to be the first source. Other fortified infant cereals include oat, barley and multigrain.
- For toddlers, provide a well-balanced diet, which includes a variety of grains.
Parents may consider rice an important first food for infants, but it shouldn't be the only source, says Dr. Jennifer Lowry, chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health and Chief of Section of Toxicology at Children's Mercy in Kansas City, Missouri.
"I wouldn't say don't eat rice," Lowry told NBC News. "I would say, don't only eat rice. Eat other grains in addition to rice, and eat other grains first."
Published studies, including new research by the FDA, indicate that cooking rice in excess water (from six to 10 parts water to one part rice), and draining the excess water, can reduce from 40 to 60 percent of the inorganic arsenic content, depending on the type of rice — although this method may also remove some key nutrients.
The FDA will accept public comments on the proposed limits for 90 days.
Dr. Shelly Choo, a medical fellow with NBC News, contributed to this report