For generations, rice cereal has been a top choice for babies starting solid foods, but lately there’s growing concern about what’s in it besides the rice: arsenic. UR Medicine’s Dr. Ruth Lawrence, an internationally recognized expert on breastfeeding and infant nutritional needs, offers some information and advice for parents.
Arsenic occurs naturally in soil, air and water. Because rice is grown in water, any arsenic in the water supply binds to the rice as it grows. A known carcinogen, arsenic can influence risk of cardiovascular, immune and other diseases, and research has shown that even low levels can have a negative impact on babies’ neurodevelopment.
Both adults and infants are exposed to arsenic when eating rice, but it’s a bigger concern for babies. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says rice intake for infants, primarily through infant rice cereal, is about three times greater than for adults relative to body weight. In fact, people eat the most rice (relative to their weight) at approximately 8 months of age, a prime time for infant brain development.
The FDA recently proposed a limit of 100 parts per billion of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. Their testing found that most infant rice cereals on the market either meet, or are close to, the proposed level. A JAMA Pediatrics study, published on the heels of the FDA’s recommendation, advises parents to keep an eye on the amount of cereal their babies eat. Researchers followed children for a number of years, noting the amount of rice products they ate and analyzing the arsenic levels in their urine. Babies who ate rice cereals had higher concentrations of arsenic than those who didn’t.
Here’s some advice for parents who are wondering if, why and when to consider feeding rice cereal to babies.
- Follow the “six-month” rule. Don’t feed your baby rice cereal—or any other solid food—prior to six months of age. Babies should be exclusively breastfed or given formula (or a combination of breast milk and formula) for the first six months of life. Breast milk, and even formula, is much more nutritious for babies at this age than solid-food alternatives.
- Note the benefits of rice cereal. There are reasons why rice cereal is so popular: it’s easy to digest, doesn’t trigger an allergic reaction as the gluten in wheat can, and is well tolerated by babies who are transitioning from breast milk or formula to solid food. In an appropriate quantity, it’s still a food you can include in your baby’s diet.
- Watch your baby’s intake. The greatest brain development occurs in the first year of life and a baby’s diet has an impact on that development. When you feed your baby rice cereal, follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ advice: Don’t feed rice cereal every day and don’t make it the only food in the meal.
- Pick your brand of rice cereal wisely. Levels of inorganic arsenic can vary widely by brand in both baby foods and products for adults. (Check out Consumer Reports’ study of arsenic levels in a variety of products.)
- Expand your baby’s diet. Add other grain cereals to your baby’s diet, including barley, quinoa, and oats. Choose single-grain cereals, rather than multigrain so you can see how your baby reacts to various grains and avoid any that seem to cause a problem. When it’s time to add vegetables and fruits, follow the same principle and introduce one new food at a time.
- Choose iron-fortified cereals. These help ensure your baby gets the nutrients it needs for optimum brain development.
- Don’t overlook other potential sources of arsenic. Arsenic can be found in other foods and other sources besides rice cereal—especially groundwater. If you have a well, be sure to have it checked periodically for arsenic as well as heavy metals such as lead, which also can be harmful to babies’ and adults’ health.
Ruth A. Lawrence, M.D., is a professor of Pediatrics and Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, and medical director of the Ruth A. Lawrence Poison and Drug Information Center and of the Breastfeeding and Human Lactation Study Center. She is an internationally renowned expert in breastfeeding and author of Breastfeeding: A Guide for the Medical Profession, now in its eighth edition.