The study’s authors warn that babies are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of arsenic, which can inhibit their development and cause long-term health problems, as they are at a “sensitive stage of development”.
“This research has shown direct evidence that babies are exposed to illegal levels of arsenic,” said Professor Andy Meharg, lead author of the study from the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast.
“Babies are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of arsenic that can prevent the healthy development of a baby’s growth, IQ and immune system to name but a few.”
The EU imposed on food manufacturers a legal maximum amount of inorganic arsenic that can be found in products consumed by children, in January 2016.
However, the study, published in the PLOS ONE journal on Friday 4 May, found that 50% of baby rice food products still contain an illegal level of inorganic arsenic.
Rice usually contains 10 times more inorganic arsenic than other foods, the study authors state.
Overconsumption of inorganic arsenic has been linked to developmental problems, heart disease, diabetes and nervous system damage.
The issue is with overconsumption so rather than cutting rice-based products out of your child’s diet the advice is to cut back and ensure their diet is varied.
The Food Standards Agency states that rice and rice products can be part of a balanced, varied and healthy diet, including for young children.
“However, we do advise that toddlers and young children – ages one to four-and-a-half years – should not be given rice drinks as a substitute for breast milk, infant formula or cows’ milk,” a spokesperson said.
“This is because of their proportionally higher milk consumption and lower bodyweight compared to other consumers.”
Professor Meharg urged manufacturers to take “simple measures” to dramatically reduce the arsenic in these products.
“Companies should publish the levels of arsenic in their products to prevent those with illegal amounts from being sold,” he said.
“This will enable consumers to make an informed decision, aware of any risks associated before consuming products containing arsenic.”
The British Specialist Nutrition Association, which represents manufacturers of foods designed for children under three, told The Guardian that its members’ products are now compliant with the EU arsenic levels and explained that the products tested in the study were bought in February 2016, just a month after the new policy took effect.