When parents turn to store-bought baby food, they're often looking to provide a quick, convenient, and nutritious meal. But a new investigation by Healthy Babies Bright Futures has found that parents may be inadvertently feeding their children dangerous heavy metals. Toxic metals were found in nearly every baby food tested, many of which could potentially impair brain development, according to a new report by Healthy Babies Bright Futures.
At least one of four toxic heavy metals was found in 95% of the 168 baby foods tested by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, an alliance of nonprofit organizations, scientists, and donors focused on reducing babies' exposure to toxic chemicals during vital periods of development. In a report published Thursday, Healthy Babies Bright Futures noted that they'd tested specifically for arsenic, lead, mercury. and cadmium.
While most of the baby foods tested contained at least one of the toxic heavy metals, 26% were found to contain all four. Just nine of the 168 baby foods tested were found to contain no traces of any of the toxic metals.
Overall, lead was the most common toxic metal found, popping up in 94% of baby foods tested. Cadmium was found in 75% of baby foods tested, while 73% were found to contain arsenic and 32% contained mercury. According to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, all of the 168 baby foods tested were from major U.S. manufacturers and spanned 61 brands.
What Are Baby Food Manufacturers Saying?
At least one baby food brand is pushing back on Healthy Babies Bright Futures' report. In a statement to Romper, a spokesperson for Gerber, which was among the brands included in the investigation, says it wouldn't be possible to remove 100% of all arsenic, lead, mercury. and cadmium. "Given their natural occurrence in our soil and water, many food safety and agricultural experts suggest that it is not feasible to achieve a 'zero' level of these elements — even in homemade foods made from organic ingredients," the spokesperson tells Romper.
Healthy Babies Bright Futures, however, has warned that even in trace amounts, repeated exposures add up and can ultimately impact a baby's developing brain. "Arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals are known causes of neurodevelopmental harm," pediatrician Dr. Philip Landrigan, who also serves as the director of the Program in Global Public Health and the Common Good in the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at Boston College, said in a Healthy Babies Bright Futures press release. "Low level exposures add up, and exposures in early life are especially dangerous. The cumulative impact of exposures is what makes this a significant concern that demands action."
Although the idea of consuming even trace amounts toxic metals like arsenic sounds scary, their naturally occurring presence in water, soil, and air may make it nearly unavoidable. While there are no definitive guidelines regarding arsenic in food, the Environmental Protection Agency has established 10 parts per billion as the "allowable" level for arsenic in drinking water, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
What Can Parents Do?
While Healthy Babies Bright Futures' report noted that choosing organic baby foods or even opting for homemade purees was unlikely to reduce exposure to toxic heavy metals due to their natural occurrence in soil and water, they did identify a few safer alternatives to higher-risk foods.
"Puffs and other snacks made with rice flour contain arsenic, lead and cadmium at relatively high levels compared to other baby foods," the report noted. "Parents can reduce children’s exposures by choosing rice-free packaged snacks instead, which have 93 percent less toxic metal residues, on average." Even multi-grain snacks that include rice would be a better option over snacks made with rice as the sole grain, according to the report.
Similarly, infant rice cereals were found to be "the top source of arsenic in infant's diets," according to Healthy Babies Bright Futures' report. They recommended parents opt for non-rice or multi-grain varieties with oatmeal, corn, barley, or quinoa, which, on average, contain 84% less inorganic arsenic that leading brands of infant rice cereal. Healthy Babies Bright Futures' report also recommended that parents replace fruit juices with tap water and whole or pureed fruits like applesauce, noting that "apple, pear, grape, and other fruit juices contain traces of lead and arsenic."
Healthy Babies Bright Futures has also urged the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to finalize health-protective standards for heavy metals, establish a health-based limit for arsenic in rice-based baby foods, and implement proactive testing for heavy metals in infant and toddler foods. "When [the] FDA acts, companies respond," Healthy Babies Bright Futures researcher and study author Jane Houlihan said in a statement. "We need the FDA to use their authority more effectively, and much more quickly, to reduce toxic heavy metals in baby foods."
For now, however, parents may consider making a few simple swaps next time they're shopping in the baby food aisle.
Houlihan, J., & Brody, C. (2019). What's In My Baby's Food? What's In My Baby's Food? Healthy Babies Bright Futures. Retrieved from https://www.healthybabyfood.org/sites/healthybabyfoods.org/files/2019-10/BabyFoodReport_FULLREPORT_ENGLISH_R5b.pdf