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The Uncle Ben's Rice recall: an important warning and lesson about vitamins

Posted by Dr. Claire McCarthy  February 11, 2014 09:49 AM

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Getting extra vitamins sounds like a good idea, right? After all, vitamins are important--so why not add them to foods and take multivitamins? Actually, it's not always a good idea at all.

The manufacturers of Uncle Ben's Flavor-Infused Rice learned this the hard way when 34 students and 4 teachers in Katy, Texas experienced burning rashes, headaches and nausea after eating the rice. Similar incidents happened in Illinois and North Dakota.

The rice has been recalled.

The likely culprit? Vitamin B3, otherwise known as Niacin, that was added to the rice.

Niacin is important for our digestive system, our skin and our nerves. Not getting enough of it causes a condition called pellagra, with digestive, skin and mental problems. But getting too much of it can cause high blood sugar, liver damage, ulcers and skin rashes. And even at regular doses people can get "flushing," when the skin turns red and feels hot and tingly.

This is likely what the people who ate the rice experienced. Luckily, it isn't serious; it generally goes away within an hour or two.

Niacin isn't the only dietary vitamin or mineral that can cause problems. More isn't always better.

In 2012, vitamins were the fifth most common poison exposure for children less than 6. Overdosing on iron can be especially dangerous. And since children's multivitamins are generally designed to look and taste good, it's not uncommon for kids to think of them as candy--and eat way too many.

Recently, the Annals of internal Medicine published an editorial about how studies show that taking a multivitamin doesn't prevent chronic conditions in adults. They called it a waste of money. But still, it's a huge business--and companies like Uncle Ben's win customers by touting that they add vitamins to their products.

Many parents I talk to see multivitamins (or vitamin-enriched foods) as a way of being sure that their picky eaters get the nutrients they need. Which is understandable and commendable--but not the best way to think about vitamins or nutrition.

The best, safest and healthiest way to get vitamins is from the foods that naturally contain them. For niacin, the best sources are meats, legumes and nuts. Basically, if you eat a varied diet, including meat, seafood, dairy, legumes, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, you will get the vitamins and minerals you need (you can get what you need without animal products, but it takes a bit more work). Not only that, you're more likely to be healthy in general.

While some people do need extra vitamins and minerals in their diet, most don't (check with your doctor to see if you or your children do). It's not a shortcut to health--and, as those teachers and students in Texas can tell you, there can be real downsides.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About MD Mama

Claire McCarthy, M.D., is a pediatrician and Medical Communications Editor at Boston Children's Hospital . An assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and a senior editor for Harvard More »

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