Maybe you’ve seen the headlines by now. There are toxic heavy metals in prepared baby foods. Even in organic prepared baby foods. The headlines are doing their job. We gasp. We click and we read. Hopefully, though, we’re not also feeling more afraid.
This is why I wanted to write today. These headlines are not a reason to live in fear. Or, worse, live in guilt over the choices we make for our babies.
We’ve known about heavy metals in foods for awhile. So, although the news isn’t “new,” it’s still noteworthy and worth learning more about. My recommendations for feeding babies are overall unchanged. However, I do think there is still reason for a bit of outrage and advocacy. Our energy can be focused there.
I’ll review everything in a bit more detail below. I’m not going to bog it down with too many numbers because I want the overall message to remain clear. Perhaps we can get down to the nitty gritty in follow up posts, if anyone is interested.
Update on Heavy Metals in Prepared Baby Foods
If you haven’t seen the latest reports, a February 4, 2021 Staff Report (from the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy) reported on dangerous levels of heavy metals in prepared U.S. baby foods. They specified arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. All four of these heavy metals can cause brain damage, especially to infants and children.
Arsenic and cadmium are also known to cause cancer. All of these metals are found in nature and some amount of them is to be expected in food and/or water.
So, the fact that they exist in packaged foods is not too surprising. This is partly because this level of information has been reported previously. For example, we’ve known about arsenic in rice for awhile. It’s why I usually recommend limiting infant rice cereal when introducing solids (as discussed a couple of months ago here ).
What’s else do we know now?
It’s the additional information that just feels unsettling. Several of these companies tested their foods for these heavy metals. The levels were high. They still sold the foods. In 2019, some of these levels and information was reported to the FDA, (“in a secret slide presentation”). The foods continued to be sold.
What does this mean for parents?
It means many families unknowingly fed their babies food that contained heavy metals. However, most diets contain some of these heavy metals anyway. They’re found in soil, water, and air. So, if we eat anything that was grown (or an animal that ate something that grew), there’s some exposure.
Because levels vary depending on location, it’s really hard to know specific levels in an arbitrary piece of produce from the grocery store.
This is why I don’t want any parent to feel guilty. We have to feed our babies. So far, there is no perfect and pristine solid food.
How do we know if our babies are affected?
There are a few things that have reassured me when rethinking about all of this. First, most kids are routinely screened for lead exposure as part of their well checks. This usually starts at age 12 months, so we would know if lead were an issue.
Second, few kids eat only one type of one brand of packaged solid food throughout infancy. The exposures really are spread out a bit. I don’t want to go so far as to say that no one has been affected by this at a neurologic level. We don’t know! But, just thinking about what our babies actually eat over time is helpful.
Economist Emily Oster has some reassuring math on this topic as well.
Recommendations Haven’t Changed
Whether I am writing about solids foods, artificial sweeteners, or prepared baby foods, each piece of new information results in the same conclusion: Variety is key. We should feed ourselves and our children a wide variety of foods. We have to accept some exposures, but can minimize toxic ones if we have multiple food sources.
We can choose to limit the foods that definitely contain the highest levels of these heavy metals. For now, that’s infant rice cereal. This most recent report also mentioned rice puffs. (This is a common snack after age 9 months or so).
Variety is also important from a nutrition standpoint. Once solids are introduced, babies need calories and nutrients from different sources.
Organic is Still a Fine Choice
Although this is definitely not today’s topic, it bears repeating. I still think it’s worthwhile to choose organic products when possible. Yes, some of these baby foods in this most recent report are organic. But organic means, at the very least, that the food does not contain certain pesticides.
That is still important.
Beyond the Food Itself: the FDA’s Role
Finally, the main issue here is not necessarily the heavy metals. It is the lack of transparency and regulation. As we learn more, we can advocate for improved testing, standard acceptable levels of heavy metals, and clear food labels. Aside from arsenic in infant rice cereal, the FDA does not regulate baby foods. Can this be a way to improve? The FDA has arsenic, lead, and cadmium limits for drinking water. It’s all based on readily available research. Is it such a stretch to say that baby foods can be regulated as well?
Lastly, I was intentional about not listing all the baby food brands here. Part of this is because since the report was released, some of the manufacturers have released conflicting reports and clarifications. I think there’s time to let the dust settle and learn more details. I also didn’t list them because I would not be surprised if most baby foods contain these heavy metals. (Some of the fortified baby foods use vitamin and mineral mixes that likely contain heavy metals).
That being said, each of us can choose for ourselves which companies we want to continue to support.
As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, pureeing our own meals to feed our babies (or feeding with a “baby led weaning” method) are valid options. It does not eliminate the exposures, but from my quick review of some heavy metal levels in various foods, the total amounts may be less than what was measured in these packaged foods. Again, this varies a lot depending on region, and may not necessarily always be true.
The news feels scary, but there are not earth-shattering changes to make in order to feed our kids safely. We should still strive for variety. We can continue to consider limiting rice cereals. The changes, perhaps, lie in advocating for better testing and communication of our food ingredients.