The Food Standards Agency has completed a survey of total and inorganic arsenic in 60 samples of rice drinks1. Arsenic occurs naturally in a wide range of foods at low levels. The toxicity of arsenic is dependent on the chemical form in which it is present. The organic form is less harmful than the inorganic form which is known to cause cancer. Most arsenic in the diet is present in the less harmful organic form.
The key facts relevant to this survey:
- This survey was carried out as a part of a larger programme where we have examined arsenic levels in rice and rice products 2, 3, 4. This programme has shown that the levels of arsenic in rice and specific rice products that were included in previous surveys have remained fairly consistent over time. This is the first Agency survey carried out on arsenic levels in rice drinks.
- Arsenic occurs naturally in a wide range of foods at low levels. Rice and rice products are known to have higher levels of inorganic arsenic compared with other foodstuffs.
- Arsenic was detected in all samples of rice drinks at low concentrations. An average concentration of 0.023 milligram/kilogram of total arsenic and 0.012 milligram/kilogram of inorganic arsenic was found.
- The Agency advises against the substitution of breast milk, infant formula or cows’ milk by rice drinks for toddlers and young children. 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. If toddlers and young children (ages 1 – 4.5 years) consume rice drinks instead of breast milk, infant formula or cows’ milk, the Agency estimates that their intake of inorganic arsenic could be increased by up to four fold if combined intakes for high-level consumption of rice drinks at the mean concentration of inorganic arsenic plus average exposure from the rest of the diet are considered.
- For all other consumers of rice drink (with a larger bodyweight than toddlers and young children), exposure to inorganic arsenic is lower and there is no need to change their diet.
- Parents of toddlers and young children who are currently consuming rice drinks because they are allergic to or intolerant of cows’ milk are advised to consult their health professional or dietitian about suitable alternatives to cows’ milk. It has been assumed that infants under 12 months are fed breast milk or infant formula milk, in line with Department of Health advice that cows’ milk, or alternatives, are not suitable as a drink until 12 months old. Rice drink is not a suitable substitute for breast or formula milk at any stage of infancy or early childhood as it is nutritionally inadequate.