Editor’s Note: Mommybites talked with pediatrician and mom Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson about her reaction to the recent report on baby food and how to best feed babies to keep them healthy.
A congressional report this month shared that four leading baby food companies were aware that their products included dangerous levels of toxic metals. What is your reaction to this news?
It’s certainly disappointing, but not necessarily unexpected or “news.” This isn’t a baby food brand issue alone but also a regulatory issue. Baby food manufacturers have to meet standards, and if some haven’t, that’s a regulatory problem. What we are seeing in the media is a true call to action for regulatory change. What we expect as moms who are buying products for our babies, is assurance that the levels of safety are in place. Especially when babies are in a time of development.
Why are toxic metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury especially dangerous for babies and young children?
When we’re growing our brains and bodies, metal/chemical exposures are particularly dangerous as they can interfere with how we make our organs. Infancy and early childhood is therefore a critical period to protect, as it’s a critical period of development. Research has shown that heavy metal exposure can be harmful to the developing brain. It’s been linked with problems with learning, cognition, and behavior. But keep in mind that many genetic, social, and environmental factors influence healthy brain development, and heavy metal exposure is just one of these factors.
Further, remember that some of the biggest exposures to heavy metals can be from places other than baby food. Ensure babies are not growing up in houses with old, peeling, or chipping lead paint. If your family uses well water, have it checked regularly. Make sure you’re taking shoes off at the front door. Avoid plastics and toys that aren’t tested for safety.
Does this mean that parents should make all baby food from scratch? Or are there some products that you feel are safer—or safe—for babies to eat?
Not necessarily. Parents don’t need to feel pressure to make every meal from scratch. Work on getting foods from a variety of sources. Striving to make your own food is great, but ensure that if you also use commercially available foods (which many of us do) that you rotate what you buy and bring diet diversity to your baby right from the start! The USDA now recommends introducing all sorts of foods right at 4 to 6 months, including common allergens like nuts and fish and sesame and soy. Don’t offer a plain, drab, simply few foods. Bring your baby the world of food early by sharing your own meals when textures are appropriate and offering everything you can think of when in safe formats. Here are some other ways the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends to reduce risk:
- Serve a variety of foods.
Give your child a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables (wash in cool water before preparing and serving), grains, and lean protein. Eating a variety of healthy foods that are rich in essential nutrients can lower the exposure to metals and other contaminants found in some foods.
- Read the labels.
Multi-ingredient baby food blends may be a good option. Be aware that many have the same first or second ingredient, though. Different flavor blends, like kale/pear and spinach/pumpkin, for example, may actually both have sweet potatoes as their first ingredient. It’s important to read the ingredients label to be sure you are offering a true variety of foods.
- Switch up your grains.
Fortified infant cereals can be a good source of nutrition for babies, but rice cereal does not need to be the first or only cereal used. Rice tends to absorb more arsenic from groundwater than other crops. You can include a variety of grains in your baby’s diet, including oat, barley, couscous, quinoa, farro, and bulgur. Multi-grain infant cereals can be a good choice. Try to avoid using rice milk and brown rice syrup, which is sometimes used as a sweetener in processed toddler foods.
What other advice would you give to parents about keeping their developing babies and children safe and healthy?
I can’t emphasize the importance of diet diversity enough. Eating a variety of healthy foods that are rich in essential nutrients can lower the exposure to metals and other contaminants found in some foods. Additionally, we know that getting diverse foods into a baby’s diet early and on a routine basis can help reduce food allergy risk.
How would you advise baby food manufacturers to adjust their policies and practices?
The strong recommendation that came from this dust-up, is that not only do food companies need to check the foods they source for contaminants they need to also check the final product.
Last words on the best way to feed your baby?
Don’t panic about recent headlines. Do your best to offer a diverse diet. Avoid fruit juices. Don’t add salt. Spices are fine but unnecessary. Enjoy feeding your baby — it’s an amazing experience to nourish a child.
Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson is a pediatrician, mom to two boys, and the Chief Medical Officer at SpoonfulOne. SpoonfulOne is a line of nutritional products designed to help stop a food allergy before it starts.
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