Toxins (Heavy Metals) in Baby Food: What Parents Need to Know

baby eating baby food
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  • Elevated levels of toxic heavy metals have been found in popular baby food products.
  • These heavy metals—including lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury—are chemical elements. They are found in soil that is used to grow food. Some areas have higher amounts of the toxins than others as a result of pesticide use and pollution.
  • Exposure to these heavy metals can have damaging effects on the developing brains of infants and toddlers.
  • Experts say there are things parents can do to reduce the risk of toxins in their baby’s diet.
  • The increased concern for baby food safety will put more pressure on the FDA to set guidelines.

Baby food is all the buzz, after a congressional report found that four leading baby food companies were aware that their products contained dangerous levels of toxic metals. While this finding may be news to many parents, it is sadly not news to pediatricians and other medical experts on child health and development.

“Over the past few years there have been more and more reports concerning unsafe levels of heavy metals in baby foods,” said Dr. David Fagan. Fagan, who is the Vice-Chairman of Pediatric Ambulatory Administration at Cohen Children’s Medical Center-Northwell Health in New Hyde Park, New York, has been a pediatrician for 25 years. “I wasn’t that surprised,” he said.

Why Toxic Metals In Baby Food Are Concerning 

The heavy metals found in the baby food products, such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury, are associated with problems surrounding brain development, behavior and other serious issues in infants and toddlers, whose central nervous systems are not fully developed.

“We have strict rules and laws about lead in paint, gasoline and canned goods because we know the harmful effects lead can have in brain development including a reduction in IQ points,” Fagan explained. “Lead [ingested] from eating paint or contained in baby food has the same end result of potential damage to the central nervous system and the developing brain.”

Is Store-Bought Baby Food Safe? 

Parents trust baby food manufacturers to put only healthy products on store shelves. But should they trust them? While the manufacturers aren’t adding heavy metals to their products—the metals are natural elements that are found in the soil where food grows—testing has shown that concerning levels of the metals are present in baby food. The findings leave many parents questioning what they should feed their children.

“Baby food manufacturers hold a special position of public trust. But consumers mistakenly believe that these companies would not sell unsafe products,” said Congressman Raja Krishnamoorthi, who leads the government group that issued the report. “It’s time that we develop much better standards.”

Lawmakers such as Krishnamoorthi will be pushing the FDA to create limits for the amounts of heavy metals in baby food products. There is a limit for the amount of arsenic that can be found in rice cereal but there are not set limits for heavy metals in other baby food products. The FDA does monitor lead and some other heavy metals in bottled water, juice and candy.

Read Next | The Toxins Found in Our Kids Toys

How Parents Can Reduce Toxins In Their Baby’s Diet

Does this mean all parents should make their own baby food to be safe? No. And remember that as the metals are found in soil where food grows, they can be present in vegetables and grains used to make from-scratch baby food. Until the FDA sets limits on heavy metals in manufactured baby food products, here’s what Dr. Fagan suggests parents do to limit their baby’s potential exposure to toxins in food:

Use a variety of foods. Don’t just offer your baby a small selection of foods, such as jar after jar of carrots. Using a single food poses a greater chance of potentially causing harm if there are elevated levels of heavy metals in the product, as opposed to offering a wide variety.

Think twice about rice. For years and years, pediatricians recommended that infants should be started on rice cereal as their first solid food. Several years ago studies began showing that rice tends to absorb more arsenic than other crops. Now pediatricians advise starting infants with other grains, such as barley, oatmeal and quinoa. “They tend to be safer and have less arsenic than rice,” Fagan noted.

Water down. If parents are making their own grains, use lots and lots of water in the cooking process to help reduce and dilute the amounts of heavy metals that could be present. This applies to homemade vegetable- and fruit-based baby food.

No juice. Pediatricians don’t recommend feeding babies juices at any time. “Juice is not a part of an infant or toddler’s diet,” Fagan explained. Use breast milk or formula for the first year of life. After that, the only liquids babies and toddlers really need are whole milk (or milk substitute if the child is allergic) and water.

Read labels carefully. Ingredients should be very simple. Look to see if additives are listed.

Heavy metals have been found in organic baby foods too, so be mindful of those products as well. And be sure to discuss baby food safety with your pediatrician, who should be familiar with this literature and have helpful advice for families.

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Elizabeth Siris Winchester is the Director of Content for Mommybites. She has spent much of her publishing career writing and editing for Time For Kids magazine and Scholastic. Liz is also the Marketing Manager for Sea Cliff Music, which provides music education to string students of all ages. A longtime Long Islander, Liz enjoys exploring surrounding communities and NYC with her three children. She also loves running, yoga, music, dogs, and spending time with family and friends.

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