The findings of Dartmouth researchers that some products contain arsenic at worrisome levels, including toddler formula, spurred a call for additional federal regulation.

The research report, published in Environmental Health Perspectives (EHP), involved the examination of several consumer food products sold over the Internet and in stores in the Hanover, NH area. The product groupings were toddler formulas, cereal/energy bars and high-energy foods used by endurance athletes. The results that perhaps piqued the most interest were from two organic toddler milk formulas, which were found to have arsenic concentrations up to six times the Environmental Protection Agency’s safe drinking water limit of 10 parts per billion. The source of the arsenic was organic brown rice syrup (OBRS), which was used in lieu of high-fructose corn syrup typically found in mainstream formulas.

Other results included higher arsenic levels on average in the 22 of 29 cereal bars that listed OBRS or another rice-based ingredient, and three flavors of an energy gel shot that had elevated arsenic levels.

Two definitions of “organic” are applicable in the context of this report. The first sense is used to describe a U.S. Department of Agriculture-certified organic food product, famous for being made with pesticide-free agricultural inputs. The other definition involves the form of arsenic being uncovered: inorganic arsenic, which is often cited as more toxic to humans, as opposed to organic arsenic, often ingested from marine life and other seafood. Inorganic arsenic was the variety found to predominate found in most of the products studied.

Rice, whether it is grown organically or with conventional farming methods, is well-known to be prone to absorbing arsenic from contaminated soil. Residue left over from decades of conventional farming with arsenic-containing pesticides may account for the presence of arsenic in certified organic products. This was pointed out by groups including the Organic Trade Association (OTA), which also stated that concerned consumers should look to organic as the best way to avoid toxins like arsenic in their foods. OTA also announced it would organize a task force to address the arsenic issue along with regulators.

“Organic and conventional crops are equally prone to pick up arsenic from the soil. Organic production systems, however, have never used either arsenic-containing animal drugs and pesticides, and hence have not contributed to elevated soil arsenic levels,” says Charles Benbrook, Ph.D., chief scientist at The Organic Center.

This report and the response to it marks a return of arsenic in food to the headlines, after concerns from late 2011 over arsenic in mainstream apple juice, including a public back and forth between television’s Dr. Oz and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The EHP study’s authors concluded their report by urging the federal government to institute a limit on arsenic in food, and many observers followed suit by pointing at the lack of regulation over the dangerous substance, especially considering the vulnerable subpopulation of children that may rely on arsenic-containing products for much of their nutrition. Arsenic is deadly to humans in high doses, and prolonged exposure to lower levels of the substance has been linked with a range of diseases and developmental problems in young children.

Believing government action is inevitable, Benbrook adds that the organic industry’s values should keep it ahead of the curve, stating, “Significant progress will almost certainly be made in the organic rice value chain long before government requirements are imposed to reduce the frequency and levels of arsenic in food.”

Published in WholeFoods Magazine, April 2012