By DEBORAH BLUM - SPEAK EASY SCIENCE - PLOS BLOGS
Added: Tue, 21 Feb 2012 21:00:27 UTC
Last week, a team of researchers from Dartmouth University released a widely publicized study with the somewhat provocative title “Arsenic, Organic Foods and Brown Rice Syrup.”
The study was yet another general reminder that words like “organic” or “natural” are not synonymous with the word “safe.” But more specifically it detailed unexpected amounts of poisonous arsenic compounds in everything from infant formula to snack bars, especially compounds containing rice or sweetened with brown organic rice syrup as a healthier alternative to high fructose corn syrup.
I’ll return to the question of exact amounts later; let us just note for now that all findings were in part per billions, numbers that may raise concerns about long-term exposure but do not suggest that anyone will be dropping dead after snacking on a cereal bar.
The more interesting immediate question anyway, at least to me, was: why were Dartmouth chemist Brian Jackson and his colleagues looking for arsenic in these supposedly healthy products at all? I rapidly discovered though that I just hadn’t been paying attention. They were simply following up on an issue well known in health science, a body of work establishing a troubling connection between rice and arsenic in the food supply.
In fact, my use of the word “unexpected” probably is more accurate in describing dismayed public reaction to the results. The authors of the new study emphasized that their working hypothesis, from the start, was that brown rice syrup would introduce arsenic into these foods.
So why rice in particular?