Is Rice Cereal Really Safe for Babies?

An alarming report shows high levels of arsenic in babies who ate rice-based products. So should you skip them for your child?

Baby Eating Rice Cereal—a Common First Food sergey0506/Shutterstock
For years the recommendation for babies' first solid food was rice cereal. Even though it's called "solid," it's actually pretty liquidy—not exactly the kind of cereal we'd eat for breakfast. That's so that it's easily digestible, a perfect first-try for baby's delicate tummy. But now, a new study from the U.S. National Institutes of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found the level of arsenic, a toxic substance known to be contained in rice, is higher in infants who eat rice cereal than those who don't.

High levels of arsenic

The study, published in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, sought to explore how much rice are babies eating, and what levels of arsenic they have in their system. The researchers looked at 759 babies, and followed up on their dietary habits every four months until 12 months old. "An estimated 80 percent of infants were introduced to rice cereal in their first year of life, with about 60 percent between four and six months of age, when solid foods are typically introduced," study author Margaret Karagas, Ph.D., of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, tells Fit Pregnancy. "In the subset of infants whose urine we collected at one year of age, over half consumed some type of rice product in the past two days. A third reported eating rice snacks, and these were primarily products marketed to infants or toddlers." Most distressingly, "urinary arsenic concentrations of infants increased with the number of servings of rice or rice containing foods in the past two days." Levels of arsenic were twice as high in infants who ate rice products compared to those who didn't, with the highest in those who ate rice cereal.

OK, but everyone has some amount of arsenic in their system, so how bad is this, really? Data is lacking, but recently some groups have begun putting restrictions on safe amounts in rice products. This month, "the US FDA proposed a limit for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal of 100 ppb [parts per billion]," Karagas says. (Inorganic in this case doesn't mean how it's grown, but rather that it doesn't contain carbon.) "This follows the 100 ppb limit set by the European Union this past year for rice aimed at infants and young children." The current general recommended limit for rice set by the United Nations and the World Health Organization is 200 ppb.

The study didn't delve further into what exactly the safe threshold for infant rice consumption was; only that the more rice product the infants ate, the higher their arsenic level. "We knew rice cereal was a typical first food for babies—but we knew very little about how common it is to feed infants rice cereal in the U.S.," Karagas says. "From previous studies of adults and older children, we knew that urinary arsenic levels tended to be higher in rice eaters than non-rice eaters, [but] this hadn't been examined in young children. Our study sought to fill these important knowledge gaps."

Rice alternatives

Arsenic is a heavy metal that naturally occurs in groundwater in the earth. It can be absorbed by crops, and rice is particularly prone to soaking it up. "Rice grains can take up arsenic from their environment, especially rice grown in flooded patty fields," Karagas says. The FDA started testing arsenic in rice in 2013, and soon realized that relative to body weight, infants consume about three times more rice than adults. This is important because some research shows that arsenic can affect children's brain development. Arsenic is also a known carcinogen, and has been linked to miscarriage and birth defects.

Karagas is hesitant to offer specific recommendations against rice, only saying that, "The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children be introduced to a diverse diet with a variety of grains and textures." The FDA, likewise, says that it would be "prudent" to offer babies a mix of other iron-fortified cereals, including oat, barley and multigrain, instead of relying solely on rice-based products. Some baby food companies, though, say they are already complying with the FDA's proposed regulations (prompting some environmental groups to say that the new guidelines don't go far enough).

Advocates of baby-led weaning say that rice cereal is not necessary as baby's first food to begin with. Since the recommendation of when to start solids has been pushed back from four months to six, babies at that age can feed themselves by hand. So, proponents of this method say parents can skip the cereals and purees, and go straight to whole foods including vegetables, fruits, even meats—bypassing the rice debate all together.

Although the official guidelines aren't yet banning rice, they do suggest making sure your baby's diet is varied. More research is needed to come up with specific limits on how much rice is safe and how much isn't. In the meantime, whichever way you decide to feed your baby, try to promote a balanced diet to avoid overloading on any one food.

More: The Best First Foods for Your Baby

7 Foods to Feed Baby Before Age 1