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Back in January, The PediaBlog hit the books and looked at a natural element abundant in Earth’s crust — lead (Pb) — with a known rap sheet for causing biologic harm to children. Today, another element is climbing the charts for a similar reason: it may be making children sick.

Coming in at number 33 (atomic number 33 on the periodic table, that is) is arsenic — a metalloid element which occurs naturally in Earth’s crust. Because it exists naturally in groundwater and the soil humans grow food in (and unnaturally as a toxic byproduct of burning fossil fuels and other industrial activities — remember: what goes up as toxic air pollution eventually comes down into our soil and water), a small amount of arsenic should be expected in our food and drinking water. And we’ve known for some time that that is exactly the case.

Arsenic is used industrially in the production of car batteries and semiconductors for electronics. Arsenic is also an important component of some pesticides, herbicides, insecticides, and treated wood products, though its use in the United States has diminished in recent years as awareness of environmental exposure and health risks have come to light. Many countries continue to use arsenic-containing pesticides for agriculture, leading to fears that imported produce could be contaminated at unhealthy levels.

Arsenic is poisonous to humans. In higher doses, it kills. More chronic exposures at lower doses are known to cause adverse effects in practically every organ in the body, as well as cancer (most commonly skin, bladder, kidney, liver, prostate, and lung). Long-term exposures to very low levels of inorganic arsenic have been getting the most attention from researchers lately, especially when it is found in foods and beverages geared for young children, including infants. A new study, published this week in JAMA Pediatrics, finds  inorganic arsenic in the urine of infants who consume rice-containing foods such as infant rice cereal and rice snacks, increasing their exposure risks, especially at a most important time of child growth and development.

Rice cereal has long been considered the “first-food-of-choice” for young infants due to its blandness, ease of preparation, and vitamin fortification (especially with iron). However, rice cereal has very little else going for it; a highly processed starch with little nutritional value, it really doesn’t deserve the status of “first food.” The AAP agrees:

The American Academy of Pediatrics advises that parents offer their children a wide variety of foods, including other grains such as oats, wheat and barley, which will decrease their child’s exposure to arsenic from rice.

Parents commonly feed infants rice cereal as a first food, but other foods are equally acceptable as a first food. Finely chopped meat provides a source of iron. Cereals made from other grains may be given first, or vegetable purees. For older children, the advice is the same: A varied diet will decrease a child’s exposure to environmental toxins in any one food, while providing a wide variety of nutrients.

 

If inorganic arsenic is ubiquitous in drinking water and food in small amounts, then rice cereal is ubiquitous in the infant diet, according to ScienceDaily:

  • 80 percent of the 759 infants were introduced to rice cereal in the first year of life with most (64 percent) starting at 4 to 6 months of age.
  • At 12 months, 43 percent reported eating some type of rice product in the past week; 13 percent ate white rice and 10 percent ate brown rice at an average of one to two servings per week.
  • 24 percent of infants ate food made with rice or sweetened rice syrup in the past week at an average of five to six servings per week
  • Based on information recorded in food diaries two days before urine sample collection, 71 infants (55 percent) consumed some type of rice product in the prior two days.

 

Former Pediatric Alliance pediatrician (and current “Functional Nutrition Doc”), Dr. Karl Holtzer, has an opinion on rice cereal as a first food for infants. Yesterday he told me:

It makes absolutely no sense from a nutritional point of view. Bland. Processed. Yuck. I recommend smashed avocado, sweet potato. There’s no science behind this. When families want to do rice, I suggest whole grain, cooked and pureed. That way the vitamin and mineral content, along with the fiber is maintained and not removed with the processing of standard white rice/grain cereals.

 

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