An organic food sweetener used as an alternative to high fructose corn syrup may have its own health risks, according to a study by Dartmouth College researchers.
The researchers found that organic brown rice syrup, used to sweeten cereal and energy bars, energy shots and toddler formula, can contain high concentrations of arsenic. Arsenic is known to cause cancer in humans and can damage the skin, digestive system, liver, brain, nose and lungs, according to the Center for Disease Control's Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Rice can become contaminated with arsenic because it can absorb the chemical from the environment into the plant, according to a previous Dartmouth study. That arsenic can still be present in organic brown rice syrup.
George Boyhan, a professor of horticulture and extension vegetable specialist at the University, said another source of arsenic in organic foods is poultry litter, which is used as an organic fertilizer. Poultry houses may use products with arsenic, which ends up in the bird droppings and bedding, or litter, which is used as a fertilizer. The arsenic can then spread from the fertilizer to the crops.
But Boyhan said contamination from chemicals isn't the biggest concern for food safety.
“I don't think that kind of thing is really much of a risk,” he said. “I think a higher risk is, all of our food, there could be pathogens in there.”
He said those involved in food production are aware of the risks.
“It's something that the FDA and growers are all concerned about and are trying to improve,” he said.
The Dartmouth researchers tested 22 cereal bars with a rice ingredient – organic brown rice syrup, rice flour, rice grain or rice flakes – in the first five ingredients. They found all of those cereal bars had levels of arsenic two to 13 times higher than the current U.S. drinking water limit for arsenic.
They also tested three energy shots with rice ingredients, and found that all had high levels of arsenic. One of the flavors had more than 8 times the recommended limit for arsenic in drinking water, and the other two flavors had more than 17 times the recommended limit, according to the study.
The Dartmouth researchers didn't offer advice about whether people should change their eating habits, but some University students are concerned by the study.
“That leaves me worried, because I try buy organic food when I'm financially able to because I've always thought it's better for you, without any harmful pesticides,” said Leyu Wondwossen, a senior sociology major.
She said knowing about arsenic in organic brown rice syrup might make her change her eating habits, to buy different foods or grow some of her own food, but she said it's hard to make informed choices when food labels don't mention risks like arsenic.