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Study finds half of UK rice breaches limits on arsenic for children

7 May 2020

A team of scientists have found 28 out of 55 rice samples sold in the UK contained levels of arsenic that were higher than European Commission regulations allow for babies and children under five.

Currently, rice and rice-based products are widely used for weaning and as baby food due to their nutritional benefits and relatively low allergic potential. However, the researchers’ findings question how often we should feed children and babies rice as, according to the European Food Safety Authority, young children are two-three times more susceptible to arsenic risks than adults due to their lower body weight.

Arsenic, which is classified as a group one carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is water-soluble and can be found in rock soil water and air.  As rice grows in flooded fields, arsenic accumulates in rice more than other cereals. Exposure to the carcinogen over a long period of time can affect almost every organ in the body and can cause skin lesions, cancer, diabetes and lung disease.

Dr Manoj Menon, Environmental Soil Scientist in the Department of Geography at the University of Sheffield and lead author of the study, said:

“Brown and wild rice are healthy foods full of fibre and vitamins, and there is no need for grown-ups to avoid them – but it is concerning to see so many varieties sold in the UK breaching food safety regulations.

“Rice products are often considered a safe option for babies and young children, but our research suggests that for more than half of the rice we sampled, infants should be limited to just 20g per day to avoid risks associated with arsenic. The government and the European Commission must introduce labelling to warn people of arsenic levels in rice to enable families to make informed food choices.”

The research conducted by the University of Sheffield’s Institute for Sustainable Food, which was funded as part of the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Food Network+, discovered that brown rice contained higher levels of the carcinogen than white or wild rice. This is because it contains the bran – the outer layer of the grain. Meanwhile, organically grown rice was found to contain significantly higher levels than non-organically grown rice. White rice contained the lowest levels of arsenic.

Considering the health implications, the researchers concluded that babies under the age of one must be restricted to a maximum of 20g per day of the 28 rice varieties that breached regulations, in order to avoid risks of developing cancer in later life. They have recommended that the UK government and European Commission introduce labelling to clarify whether rice is safe for consumption by babies and children under five.

The research paper, Do arsenic levels in rice pose a health risk to the UK population? is now available in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety.

Last updated: 26 May 2020

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