Scientists from the University of Sheffield have found that over half of a group of rice varieties sold in the UK contained levels of arsenic that were higher than allowed for babies and young children.

Arsenic, which is classified as a group one carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, is water-soluble and can be found in rock soil water and air.

Because rice grows in flooded fields, arsenic accumulates in rice more than other cereals.

Exposure to the carcinogen over a long period of time can affect almost every organ in the body and can cause skin lesions, cancer, diabetes and lung disease.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the soil but its concentration is higher in some areas than others, depending on whether farmers have historically used arsenic-based pesticides or whether irrigation water contains arsenic.

The new research, published in the journal Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety, looked at 55 rice samples sold in the UK and found that 28 of them had levels of arsenic that were higher than European Commission regulations allow for babies and children under five.

Rice and rice-based products are widely used for weaning and as baby food due to their nutritional benefits and relatively low allergic potential.

However, the researchers’ findings raise questions about how often we should feed children and babies rice, as young children are two to three times more susceptible to arsenic risks than adults due to their lower body weight.

Lead author of the study Dr Manoj Menon said, “Brown and wild rice are healthy foods full of fibre and vitamins, and there is no need for grown-ups to avoid them … but our research suggests that for more than half of the rice we sampled, infants should be limited to just 20g per day to avoid risks associated with arsenic.”

The researchers have urged the Government to introduce labelling to warn people of arsenic levels in rice to enable families to make informed food choices.

Last reviewed 21 May 2020