A new study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives is the latest in a string of research suggesting that arsenic contamination in the food and beverage supply is more common than previously realized.

The latest study looked at arsenic levels in organic brown rice syrup, a sweetener sometimes used in baby formulas, cereal bars, and in energy shot drinks and bars in place of high-fructose corn syrup.

The legal drinking water limit for arsenic is set at 10 parts per billion (ppb), but two of the 17 baby formulas tested matched or exceeded that limit—and both contained organic brown rice syrup as an ingredient, the likely source of the contamination according to the Dartmouth University study authors. One brown rice syrup–containing cereal bar contained 12 times the legal limit for drinking water, and the high-energy foods in the study that listed the sweetener as an ingredient had eight to 17 times the limit. The baby formula posed the greatest threat, according to the researchers.

While there is a set legal limit for the amount of arsenic in water, that's not the case for food. In previous weeks, researchers also detected high levels of arsenic in apple and grape juices. "All of these arsenic studies come back to the fact that there are multiple exposures, with the levels varying from product to product and batch to batch," says Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch, a consumer safety organization. "We need to figure out some regulatory limit."

Read More: The 5 Best, and 5 Worst, Sweeteners to Have in Your Kitchen


Grant Lundberg, CEO of Lundberg Family Farms, a 75-year-old organic rice company that received Nutrition Business Journal's 2011 Sustainability award, agrees. Rice has been a source of healthy nutrition for more than 300 years, and because arsenic is naturally occurring, some levels are present in all rice, a wide range of fruits, vegetables, grains, and seafood, as well as in the air and in drinking water, he said. What it boils down to? "We want FDA to come up with broad regulation on this issue…that's what this study really advocates," he says.

While this study targeted organic brown rice syrup, a December 2011 study analyzing conventional rice also found concerning arsenic levels, highlighting the fact that rice plants can take up arsenic through groundwater and soil. And while arsenic is naturally occurring and varies in concentrations in different geographical locations, it has also been used in pesticides and wood treatments and remains in the environment for a long time. Chronic exposure to inorganic arsenic, the type detected in this study, could increase cancer risk. Experts are split over the health effects of organic arsenic.

It is important to note, however, that organic products offer a number of other health benefits, protecting consumers from certain cancers, ADHD, autism, diabetes, and other conditions. Organic farming bans the use of human-sewage-sludge fertilizers, which can be laced with heavy metals and shampoo chemicals. Pesticides and genetically engineered organisms, which have not been tested for long-term human health effects, are also outlawed in certified-organic practices.