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UK Food Standards Agency releases research on arsenic in rice milk


Arsenic occurs in soil, sea water, fresh water and in almost all plants and animal tissues both as a result of geogenic but also anthropogenic origin. As a result, arsenic occurs at low levels in many foods and it is nearly impossible to avoid it completely. How harmful the arsenic is depends on the chemical form (speciation) in which it is present. The organic forms  are considered less harmful than the inorganic forms which can cause cancer by harming our genetic material (DNA). Rice and rice products have higher levels of inorganic arsenic compared with other food. The Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) (an independent scientific committee that provides advice to the Food Standards Agency) has concluded that people should consume as little of this form of arsenic as reasonably practicable.

Current regulations
There are no EU-wide regulations for arsenic levels in food. In the UK, there is a general limit of 1 mg/kg (milligram per kilogram) for arsenic in food. Separate limits apply to certain food categories. For instance, ready-to-drink non-alcoholic beverages have a limit of 0.1 mg/kg. The UK regulations were set in 1959 before it was known that inorganic arsenic can cause cancer.

Discussions have started in Europe to assess the risks to human health from consuming arsenic in foodstuffs. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been asked for its opinion on the risk to human health associated with arsenic in food (see the EFSA call in EVISA's News section) and EFSA's risk assessment is expected to be published in September 2009. Following this, it is possible that EU-wide regulations will be set for arsenic levels in food.

The new studies:
On May 21 the Agency has published results from two studies: arsenic levels in rice drinks and one on cooking methods to reduce arsenic levels in rice. The rice drink study followed concerns about results from a study published last year that measured arsenic levels in these types of drinks (see the EVISA News from March 15, 2008). The new study examined 60 samples of rice drinks and found low levels of arsenic in all of them.

The level of total arsenic ranged from 0.010 - 0.034 milligram/kilogram and the levels of inorganic – the more harmful – fraction of arsenic ranged from 0.005 - 0.020 milligram/kilogram. The proportion of inorganic arsenic in the rice drink samples ranged from 48 - 63%. None of the results were over the current legal limit (but see the Current regulations section above).

In the second study, researchers looked at the effect of cooking methods on arsenic content of rice. The Agency is not advising anyone to change the way they cook rice as a result of this study as the impact on the overall dietary intake of arsenic from different cooking methods is minimal. Anyhow, the greatest reduction of arsenic in rice of up to 45% was achieved by cooking rice in a large volume of water (6:1). 

What the Agency advises:
As a precaution, toddlers and young children between 1 and 4.5 years old should not have rice drinks as a replacement for cows’ milk, breast milk, or infant formula. This is because they will then drink a relatively large amount of it, and their intake of arsenic will be greater than that of older children and adults relative to their bodyweight. This is both on nutritional grounds and because such substitution can increase their intake of inorganic arsenic, which should be kept as low as possible. A daily half pint or 280 millilitres of rice drink could double the amount of the more harmful form of arsenic they consume each day.

There is no immediate risk to children who have been consuming rice drinks and it is unlikely that there would have been any long-term harmful effects but to reduce further exposure to arsenic parents should stop giving these drinks to toddlers and young children.

If your child is allergic to cows’ milk, you are strongly advised to seek advice from your health professional or dietitian on suitable replacements.

Other groups of people do not need to change their diet because their exposure to inorganic arsenic from rice drinks is lower relative to their bodyweight.

Children under a year old should drink breast milk or infant formula milk. Cows’ milk or alternatives are not suitable as a drink until an infant is 12 months old.

The research results presented here do not affect the Agency’s advice on any other weaning foods. Advice from a survey in 2007, which included baby rice and other rice products, concluded that these foods did not have levels of inorganic arsenic that caused concern.

The cited studies

Survey of total and inorganic arsenic in rice drinks

Levels of arsenic in rice: the effects of cooking

 Related EVISA News

January 31, 2009: Using the right recipe for cooking rice reduces toxic inorganic arsenic content 

December 4, 2008: High level of inorganic arsenic in blue mussels from Norwegian Fjords

November 11, 2008: EFSA calls for data on arsenic levels in food and water

March 15, 2008: Arsenic in rice milk exceeds EU and US drinking water standards

February 15, 2008:
Arsenic speciation in rice: a question of the rice plant species
January 31, 2008: New arsenic species detected in carrot samples
March 7, 2007: Elevated Arsenic Levels Found In Rice Grown In South Central States of the USA
September 7, 2006: Toxic inorganic arsenic species found in Japanese seaweed food
August 3, 2005: Surprisingly high concentrations of toxic arsenic species found in U.S. rice

last time modified: November 3, 2009


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