What you should know about brown rice syrup and cereal bars

Michelle Hainer / Today

When the news came out last week that a group of Dartmouth researchers had found high levels of arsenic in cereal bars containing organic brown rice syrup, I immediately checked the ingredients list on the bars I eat every day. Turns out they, too contain brown rice syrup. I was both alarmed and frustrated at this, considering that I ate these bars throughout my entire pregnancy and have continued to do so while breastfeeding my 6-month-old son. Plus, since they were labeled organic, I just assumed they were better for me.

But like many other consumers, I was wrong.

“Most organic brands do have less added ingredients, so they are often the better choice,” said Keri Glassman, MS, RD, CDN, and author of “The O2 Diet.” “But just because they are organic doesn't mean they’re not loaded with fat, sugar and calories.”

And in this case, the “sugar” comes in the form of organic brown rice syrup, which is often used as a substitute for high fructose corn syrup, a sweetener that’s been getting a bad rep for years. But as it turns out, the body views all sweeteners used in foods as the same, according to Madelyn Fernstrom, a nutrition expert from the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and TODAY’S diet and nutrition editor.

“There’s no nutritional plus in any of them,” she said. As for the arsenic content in brown rice syrup, “When we think about the soil in which foods are grown, there are traces of some elements, like arsenic, which can be detected, but do not pose danger to people eating the foods. The FDA does a good job (always can be better) in monitoring soil safety. Of course, as the FDA agrees, it can always be revisited, but foods with brown rice syrup are safe to consume, if you choose.”

Michelle Hainer / Today
Want to play it extra safe? Make your own granola bars.

What you really should concentrate on are serving size, calories, fiber and vitamin and mineral content, said Fernstrom, all of which can be found by simply reading the back panel of the bar’s packaging. If you want to avoid brown rice syrup all together, Pure Organic Bars, Lara Bars, Kind Bars and Two Moms in the Raw nut bars are all free of the stuff. Pure Organic and Lara have a brownie-like consistency (and yummy chocolate flavors) while Kind bars are full of nuts and fruits and have a gooey quality that made me feel like I was eating candy. I’m also a big fan of making my own breakfast bars and if you’re feeling ambitious, try this recipe, adapted from this basic version on Smitten Kitchen.

Get more tips and recipes for seasonal eats at Made By Michelle.