Infant rice cereal contains an average of six times the level of arsenic as other grain cereals on the market, according to a new study conducted by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), a national alliance of scientists and child health advocacy organizations.

The findings affirm the results of Consumer Reports’ own testing in 2012 and 2014, which revealed high levels of arsenic in rice and rice products, including infant rice cereals.

“For years, rice cereal has been recommended as a baby’s first food,” says Jane Houlihan, research director at HBBF. “But until arsenic levels are significantly reduced across the board, we do not think it’s a safe choice.”

“Even exposure to low levels of 'inorganic' arsenic—the most toxic type of arsenic—in infant rice cereal can have a damaging effect on a baby’s developing IQ and neurodevelopmental system,” adds James Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety and research at Consumer Reports.

Arsenic has also been proven to increase one’s risk of developing bladder, lung, and skin cancers, as well as heart disease and type 2 diabetes.

To conduct the study, HBBF purchased 105 infant cereal samples (45 products) from nine brands at different retailers across the country. In addition to rice and brown rice cereals, the samples included cereals made from 11 other grains such as corn, oatmeal, and wheat, and multigrain cereals, some of which contained rice. On average, the non-rice and multigrain cereals had 84 percent less arsenic than the cereals made with just rice.

“Rice plants absorb more arsenic than others in part because they’re grown in water-flooded conditions,” says Rogers. “This means that the plants take up arsenic that would otherwise be stuck in the soil.”  

How Much Arsenic Is in Baby Rice Cereal?

Averaging all the samples together in the HBBF report, the rice cereals contained 85 parts per billion (ppb) of arsenic, but there were several rice cereal samples that had 90 ppb or higher; 90 ppb is the maximum allowable level of arsenic Consumer Reports recommends an infant rice cereal should have.

"No amount of arsenic can be considered completely safe," says Rogers. "But there are levels below which risks are fairly low.”

Of the 45 individual containers of infant rice cereal the group tested—which included products from Beechnut, BioKinetics, Earth’s Best, Gerber, HappyBABY, and Healthy Time—one third contained levels of 90 ppb or higher. BioKinetics’ Brown Rice Sprouted Baby Cereal contained the most arsenic in the testing, with samples ranging from 128 ppb to 235 ppb.

More About Arsenic

BioKinetics president Robert DenHoed said he was surprised by HBBF's results.

“We test samples ourselves and send some to an offsite lab in Toronto, and our readings are typically less than 10 ppb,” DenHoed said, adding that his company does not intend to make any changes.

Consumer Reports’ 2012 and 2014 tests of rice and rice products reported alarmingly high levels of arsenic—and also found this toxic heavy metal in both apple and grape juice. At that time, CR recommended limiting the consumption of these foods, including no more than a quarter cup of infant rice cereal per day, and asked the FDA to set tough arsenic limits for manufacturers to meet. While the amount of arsenic in rice cereals in the HBBF study is, on average, below what CR’s previous testing found, it is still concerning, says CR’s Rogers.  

Guidelines on Arsenic in Rice Are Needed

The only FDA restrictions regarding arsenic are on bottled water, with a limit of 10 ppb, the same as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) limit on drinking water. The agency issued draft guidance to manufacturers in 2013 and 2016 proposing a limit of 10 ppb for apple juice and 100 ppb for infant rice cereal, respectively. The next step would be finalizing these “best practice” arsenic guidelines for juice and cereal manufacturers.

The FDA still hasn’t issued final guidance. When asked about the delay, FDA spokesman Peter Cassell said in an email to Consumer Reports: “FDA testing of infant rice cereals in the marketplace—including as recently as this summer—has found most of the products to be below the agency’s proposed action level. In these samples, the agency has observed a decline in the overall levels of inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal since the proposed limit was issued. The FDA continues to advise consumers to feed infants and toddlers a variety of fortified infant cereals, rather than relying solely on infant rice cereal.”

But even if these guidances were finalized, manufacturers would not be required to follow them, says Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports.

U.S. Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) wants the FDA to go even further: She's asking for mandatory limits on the amount of inorganic arsenic contained in rice and rice-based foods. DeLauro announced Thursday that she has reintroduced a bill to do just that, known as R.I.C.E (Reducing food-based Inorganic Compounds Exposure) Act.

“The federal government has long known about the dangers of arsenic in our food supply,” said DeLauro in a written statement to Consumer Reports. “Yet high levels of inorganic arsenic—a known carcinogen—are still present in rice, rice-based cereal, and other foods many adults, children, and infants eat every day. ... That is why Congress must take up the R.I.C.E. Act to protect all Americans health and well-being.”

Consumers Union has endorsed the R.I.C.E. Act as an important step forward for public health, and is urging all members of Congress to support it.

CR’s Halloran says that while passing the R.I.C.E. legislation would be the best ultimate outcome, the FDA can act right away to finalize its draft guidance.

“It is essential that manufacturers have a clear standard for how much arsenic is permissible in infant rice cereal—a food widely consumed by one of our most vulnerable populations," she says. "There is no excuse for delay—FDA should finalize its proposed guidance of 100 ppb for infant rice cereal immediately."

Although not as low as the majority of nonrice and multigrain cereals, some of the containers of different rice cereal products in the HBBF study did have arsenic levels below 90 ppb.

“This shows that it is possible to reduce the arsenic content of rice cereals,” says Halloran.

In response to the HBBF study, the major rice trade association, USA Rice Federation, said in a statement to Consumer Reports: “The U.S. rice industry is dedicated to understanding and addressing the issue of arsenic in rice, and are pleased to be able to say that according to the WHO and UN-FAO, the levels in U.S. rice are the lowest in the world.” 

What Parents Can Do Now

Because of the potential risks to babies of eating rice cereal with high levels of arsenic, HBBF is encouraging parents to stop feeding their children rice cereal altogether. Instead, the group suggests parents stick with iron-fortified grain cereals such as barley, oat, and multigrain—which share rice cereal’s nutritional benefits without the arsenic risk.

Consumer Reports’ guidance does not yet rule out all rice cereal in a baby’s diet: Our experts suggested that parents feed babies no more than a quarter cup of rice cereal daily. In light of this new research, however, CR’s Rogers says: “Consumer Reports will review the HBBF data and recommendations in conjunction with our own ongoing research.”

In the meantime, Consumer Reports recommends varying the types of cereal parents feed their babies, in addition to limiting the quantity of rice cereal.

“While parents often give babies rice cereal as their first food, other infant cereals, such as oatmeal and barley-based cereal, offer similar nutritional benefits,” says Rogers.

Additional guidance for adults on how much rice is safe to eat can be found in this Consumer Reports article from 2014.