Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that can be found in many of our foods, most commonly rice, and also in some artificial products (including some pesticides). Arsenic makes its way into our foods when it is absorbed from the soil and water in which it grows.
There are two different categories of arsenic: organic and inorganic. The more concerning of the two is inorganic arsenic, as it is toxic and can cause cancer. Pregnant women, infants and young children are most at risk for the dangers of arsenic exposure.
While you can’t completely avoid inorganic arsenic, you can limit your family’s exposure and reduce your risk. Here’s how.
Are you safe from arsenic if you buy only organic foods? Not exactly. The labels organic and inorganic, when referring to arsenic, mean something totally different from the organic labels on foods.
Bottom line: Even if you’re buying organic, arsenic is still a cause for concern in certain foods.
Since your baby needs only breastmilk or iron-fortified formula for the first 4 to 6 months, protecting him from the dangers of arsenic exposure is much easier at this stage. Once your baby starts solids, however, it’s time to start thinking about how you can reduce arsenic exposure.
When that time comes, iron-fortified rice cereal is a popular first solid food, and many pediatricians recommend it because some babies need supplemental iron. However, rice absorbs arsenic in higher amounts than other grains. The good news is that there are plenty of other sources of iron for your baby that don’t have the same high levels of arsenic as rice. Instead of rice cereal, you could feed your baby other iron-fortified infant cereals, like oat and barley, which reduce the level of arsenic exposure. Pureed meats, like chicken thighs, pork and lean beef, are all excellent sources of iron with low arsenic risk.
Although you no longer have to worry about infant rice cereal, you may still want to reduce your child’s consumption of rice and rice products. For example, treats and snacks like rice pudding, sugary rice cereals and granola bars are frequently made with brown rice syrup. So not only are they high in sugar, they also increase your child’s exposure to arsenic.
This doesn’t mean you can’t ever serve rice, or that you have to completely cut it from your diet; instead, the amount of rice your family eats should be limited over the course of a week. For meals where you would normally serve rice, consider switching it up with a variety of other whole grains, such as whole-wheat bread, whole-wheat tortillas, whole-wheat pasta, quinoa or couscous.
In addition to foods, arsenic can also be found in juice (even if it’s 100 percent fruit juice). So not only is juice high in sugar—which can lead to diarrhea and tooth decay—it can also put your child at risk for arsenic exposure.
Instead of offering your baby or toddler juice, stick to the basics. Your baby needs only breastmilk or iron-fortified formula, and your toddler needs only water and milk.