Brown Rice Syrup & Arsenic… The Truth I Discovered

February 11, 2014

People are confused and scared by grim statistics and dire predictions about health and our diets. Organic, non-organic, local, commercial, GMO’s, farm fresh, natural…it’s like you need to be a rocket scientist to grocery shop. And after all that; after doing ‘all the right things,’ the food is less than yummy and you’ve given up all the ‘fun stuff.’ You know I am right.

In the midst of Americans being sold on the idea that high fructose corn syrup is the same in the body as sugar (it’s not…at all, except calorically), comes a small but impactful scandal that brown rice syrup contains arsenic and we should all head back to the HFCS to be safe.

Please, people. Hang on to your sugar bowls for some facts and then decide what’s right for you and your family.

A published study by researchers at Dartmouth College has called into question the presence of arsenic in some organic products. While the study itself focused on infant formula, health bars and high energy foods, the resulting interpretation of the findings failed to address the arsenic issue as a serious concern for all food production, according to the Organic Trade Association (OTA).

“In fact, organic production practices are part of the solution to reducing the application of arsenic-laden herbicides, as well as toxic and persistent pesticides known to create health problems,” said Christine Bushway, OTA’s Executive Director and CEO. She added, “These applications are prohibited in organic agriculture. Moreover, this is verified through third-party inspection and strict regulations.”

Arsenic is a natural element that can contaminate soil, as well as groundwater used for drinking and irrigation. Legacy residues from decades of routine use of arsenic-based herbicides and insecticides pose a real threat to all food production, organic and conventional. Regardless of how it is raised, rice plants growing in soils still contaminated with arsenic will extract the element from the soil, and some will be present in the grain harvested from those plants.

Past research has also confirmed the presence of hot-spots for arsenic soil contamination (the southern regions of our country), as well as areas free, or nearly free of arsenic residues in soil (California, India and Pakistan). Any rice product destined for baby food or children’s food should come only from regions known to have arsenic-free soils. Prevention is a core principle of organic farming and food processing, and will drive the response to this new challenge across the organic food industry.

Every day, millions of servings of fresh fruits and vegetables and, less frequently, fruit juices expose children to pesticide residues and risk above EPA-set safe levels, and sometimes at levels several-fold above what EPA regards as acceptable. A significant share of these high-exposure food servings contains residues of neurotoxic organophosphate (OP) insecticides. Some imported fresh fruits and vegetables pose risks several-fold higher than domestically grown produce, and also deserve more attention by regulators. In the interim, consumption of organic fruit and vegetables is the surest way to avoid high-risk pesticide exposures.

That said, it’s also important to note that all minerals, including heavy metals, cannot be created or destroyed … they can only be redistributed and recycled in our ecosystem. All of the minerals, including arsenic, are naturally occurring in the Earth’s crust and have been distributed on the surface of the earth by volcanic activity over the course of millions of years. Therefore, these minerals are everywhere. Man has played a role in the concentration of some of these minerals in certain areas. The historic use of arsenic-based pesticides and herbicides (especially with crops like cotton) has concentrated this mineral more in certain agricultural areas than others.

For the most part, in my view, Brian Jackson at Dartmouth has published the rediscovery of something that is already known: that rice is proficient at assimilating arsenic (along with certain other mineral complexes like Silica) from the soil it grows in. Every grain and cereal absorbs arsenic to some degree, but rice does a better job than others. It is also known that kelp absorbs arsenic and therefore certain edible shellfish are also high in this mineral. It is also known that most fruits and vegetables we consume contain arsenic, both naturally occurring and from legacy pesticides.

Even considering this study done at Dartmouth, the researchers admitted that the amount of arsenic found in organic brown rice syrup is consistent with the levels found in brown rice itself … as would be expected. The authors do not suggest that people should not eat rice; they admit to its health benefits, but rather took exception to the use of rice syrup in infant formulas.

Since this study broke into our consciousness, the FDA has corrected their conclusions from the viewpoint that the formula they analyzed was not in infant formula, but rather a baby/toddler formula, which is significant. Natural sweeteners are not allowed to be used in infant formulas, which are strictly regulated by them. They go on to say, “Because arsenic is naturally occurring in the soil and was used for many years in pesticides, we know there are traces amounts of arsenic in many foods.” This is huge. In my mind, both these points make the whole sensationalized study release a bit suspect.

I wanted more information so I met with an independent lab, the very lab that is working on the nutritional analysis for my new cookie company. My representative brought me more information than I expected.

According to what I read, the arsenic in question is largely organic arsenic, the version of this mineral that is not as harmful to the human body. In a study done by John Duxbury, a soil chemist at Cornell University, the results of all the arsenic studies on food are less straightforward than they seem. His analyses showed that the rice he tested exhibited only 22% inorganic arsenic, the form of arsenic that can be absorbed by the human body, meaning the majority of arsenic found was organic, the version our bodies cannot absorb. “Until this gets sorted out in a reasonable way, consumers shouldn’t be overly concerned,” he concludes.

If you are worried, however, you should source the rice that is being used in the rice syrup you use in cooking and baking. I spoke with my friends at Suzanne’s Specialties, the rice syrup I use and stand by. The source of their brown rice is Pakistan, a country that, along with India and our own California rice, has shown to produce rice with the least amount of naturally-occurring and legacy arsenic.

In the end, I have come to the conclusion that brown rice syrup remains one of the best sweeteners for us. I will continue to use it with confidence since I have researched, spoken to experts and sourced the rice that becomes the syrup I use.

I do hope this helps. Be well and happy cooking!