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When Organic Does Not Mean Healthy

Consumers are attracted to organic products because they are perceived to be healthier than conventional food sources.  To borrow a phrase from Porgy & Bess (as I have done in the past), it ain't necessarily so.  [See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kP5O_NUhrK0.] 

Organic brown rice syrup has become an alternative to high fructose corn syrup as a sweetener in food.  High fructose corn syrup has been criticized as a highly processed substance that is more harmful than sugar and is a substantial contributor to epidemic obesity; whether this allegation is correct is up for grabs, but it has become part of today's "received wisdom."  Unfortunately, the "alternative" has a significant problem.  Researchers have found significant levels of arsenic, a known human carcinogen [see http://toxnet.nlm.nih.gov/cgi-bin/sis/search/f?./temp/~9ge1bK:1:care] in "organic" Brown Rice Syrup.  Baby foods, cereal bars, and "high energy" foods have been found with arsenic levels many times the MCL for arsenic in drinking water (there are no regulations limiting the presence of arsenic in food).

Researchers purchased seventeen toddler formulas, 29 cereal bars, and 3 energy "shots" from local stores in the Hanover, N.H., area.  Of the 17 toddler milk formulas tested, only two had listed organic brown rice syrup as the primary ingredient.  These two formulas, one dairy-based and one soy-based, were high in arsenic, more than 20 times greater than the other formulas. The amount of inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form, averaged 8.6 ppb for the dairy based formula and 21.4 ppb for the soy formula.

22 of the bars listed at least one of four rice products (organic brown rice syrup, rice flour, rice grain, and rice flakes) in the first five ingredients.  The cereal bars ranged from 8 to 128 ppb in total arsenic; those that had no rice ingredients were lowest in arsenic and ranged from 8 to 27 ppb, while those that did contain a rice ingredient ranged from 23 to 128 ppb total arsenic.  The energy shots are gel-like blocks,  and the researchers speculated that it would not be immediately apparent to the consumer that these too are rice-based products.  One of the three flavors of energy shots tested revealed about 84 ppb total arsenic (100 percent inorganic arsenic), while the other two showed 171 ppb total arsenic (53 percent inorganic arsenic).

In one sense, the results should not be a surprise.  Rice contains arsenic.  Rice can thus be a major source of inorganic arsenic for many sub-populations.  When considering so-called "background" levels of cancer, the ingestion of rice needs to be considered when assessing the types of cancer arsenic may initiate.  [A good discussion of sources of exposure to arsenic and its health impacts may be found at http://www.cancer.org/Cancer/CancerCauses/OtherCarcinogens/IntheWorkplace/arsenic.]

The report is in pre-print mode.  However, an abstract is available at http://ehp03.niehs.nih.gov/article/fetchArticle.action?articleURI=info:doi/10.1289/ehp.1104619.

The brown rice syrup issue also demonstrates one of the problems with California's Proposition 65, which contains a "naturally occurring" exception to its exposure rules.  Whether it is arsenic in rice or mercury in tuna, a consumer may be exposed to a substance that may cause or contribute to adverse health consequences.  While there is no question, for example, that certain types of fish provide important health benefits, public policy should take into account both the beneficial and adverse impacts when addressing these food related issues.  The concept of "naturally occurring" really makes no sense in this context, an exposure is an exposure no matter the source.  What matters is the context of the exposure and the balancing of benefits and risks.