You can't win. People who buy foods sweetened with organic brown rice syrup in an effort to avoid high fructose corn syrup are exposing themselves to higher than normal amounts of arsenic. And while no one is sure how much of a health hazard, if any, this presents, it is particularly worrisome for babies, who are much more sensitive to toxic substances than adults are.

At high doses, arsenic is both a poison and a carcinogen. Little is known about the effect of lower doses. There's currently no limit on the amount of arsenic that's allowed in food. But there is a safe limit on the amount allowed in water: 10 parts per billion (ppb) or micrograms per liter. And many foods sweetened with brown rice syrup exceed this limit.

The test results leave parents in a hard place, trapped between the devil they know and want to avoid in high fructose corn syrup and the devil they don't in the high arsenic content of formulas containing brown-rice syrup.

Rice absorbs more arsenic from the soil than other grains do. Historically, this hasn't been a problem; rice has been the staple food of many Asian civilizations for thousands of years. But none of those civilizations had brown rice syrup, a concentrate made from rice that also concentrates the arsenic in it.

Brown rice syrup is made by treating cooked brown rice with enzymes that break down the starch into sugars (mostly maltose and maltotriose), straining off the liquid and cooking off most of the water until only syrup is left. This syrup is becoming increasingly popular as a food sweetener.

Dartmouth researchers recently tested the amount of arsenic in three brands of organic brown rice syrup and three types of foods that contain the syrup: baby formulas, cereal/energy bars and energy shots used by high endurance athletes. The findings in baby formula are the most troubling.

The researchers tested 17 brands of infant and toddler formula for arsenic content. Only two toddler formulas contained brown rice syrup. On average, these contained 20 times more arsenic than the other 15 formulas did. One lot of brown rice syrup-containing formula tested at 60 parts per billion total arsenic, six times the allowable arsenic content of water.

Babies are more susceptible to poisons and toxins than adults because of their low body weight and because they're in a rapid state of development. With no current limit on the allowable amount of arsenic in food and no consensus on what a safe amount is, the test results leave parents in a hard place, trapped between the devil they know and want to avoid in high fructose corn syrup and the devil they don't in the high arsenic content of formulas containing brown-rice syrup.

To help them, the study authors have prepared a brief fact sheet to address their safety concerns. While noting the uncertainty of just how hazardous these arsenic levels are, they point out that arsenic does not accumulate in the body, so when a child is no longer exposed to it, the remainder will leave their system in a few days.

Though most troubling for babies, there's also concern for adults. The researchers tested the arsenic content of 29 energy and cereal bars purchased from grocery stores. Twenty-two of these bars contained at least one rice product as one of their top five ingredients, brown rice syrup for 18 of them.

The cereal bars ranged from 8 to 128 ppb in total arsenic. Those that had no rice ingredients were lowest in arsenic and ranged from 8 to 27 ppb, while those that did contain a rice ingredient ranged from 23 to 128 ppb total arsenic.

Arsenic was also tested for in three energy shots--high energy products for endurance athletes. All three contained brown rice syrup, though their appearance (gel-like blocks) doesn't reveal that they're rice-based products. One tested at 84 ppb arsenic; the other two tested at 171 ppb, 17 times the concentration allowed in water.

Right now, no one can say if the added arsenic adults are exposed to from eating these foods is dangerous or not. Studies are underway at Dartmouth and other universities that will hopefully give more specific information on the health effects of dietary arsenic.

Since several of the foods tested contain more arsenic than is allowed in water, the researchers conclude that there is an urgent need for regulatory limits on arsenic in foods.

An article on the study is published online in Environmental Health Perspectives.