Infants who eat more rice-containing products, such as rice cereal or puffed rice, have higher levels of arsenic in their urine, a new study finds.

Why it matters:

Infants commonly eat rice as their first food. Rice naturally contains arsenic, which may harm infants’ immune and nervous systems. But there isn’t much data on how eating rice directly affects babies’ exposure to arsenic.

The nitty gritty:

The parents of more than 700 infants from the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study reported their babies’ diets at three-month intervals for their first year of life. Researchers found that 80 percent of infants were introduced to rice cereal within the first year, with most starting cereal at 4 to 6 months of age.

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The researchers looked more closely at 129 of these infants, collecting urine samples and analyzing their food intake three days before the urine sample was given. Urinary arsenic concentrations were higher among infants who ate rice or rice-containing foods, compared with infants who ate no rice in the preceding days. The study was published Monday in JAMA Pediatrics.

You’ll want to know:

This month the Food and Drug Administration proposed a limit of 100 parts per billion for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. Based on its testing, about half of infant cereals exceed this limit. But exposure depends on how often these are consumed.

But keep in mind:

Participants in the study relied on private wells or springs for water, and a number of the wells in rural New Hampshire have elevated levels of arsenic, which may make the findings less generalizable, said lead investigator Margaret R. Karagas, of the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth College.

Other dietary sources of arsenic, such as fish, apple juice, and baby formula may also contribute to urinary arsenic concentrations, said Dr. Elizabeth Prout-Parks, a pediatric nutrition expert from the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. While the researchers controlled for water and fish consumption, “they did not not talk about control for baby formula, and that in itself is problematic,” she said.

What they’re saying:

Arsenic is present in a variety of dietary sources, but exposure needs to be extremely high to see any toxicity.

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While this study confirms suspicions that infants consuming rice products have increased exposure to arsenic, it’s important to note that this paper is only about exposure and not about a health effect, said Dr. Mark Miller, assistant clinical professor of pediatrics and internal medicine at the University of California San Francisco.

The bottom line:

When introducing solid foods, it’s important to mix it up. Experts say parents should follow the American Academy of Pediatrics’ guidelines: Around 6 months of age, introduce a wide array of solid foods and focus on healthy foods that offer a variety of textures. Varied grains like oats, wheat, and barley, will decrease a child’s exposure to arsenic from rice.

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