How Worried Should Parents Be About Heavy Metals in Baby Food?

The concern is not that baby foods are an immediate threat but that daily exposure may build up over time, doctors say

If you’re the parent of a baby, a study out last week may have left you nervous about all the food you put in your little one’s mouth.

The new report from a consumer advocacy group found that 95 percent of 168 commercial baby foods tested contained toxic heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium, and one in four products contained all four. Among the top offenders were rice-based cereals and snacks, juices and sweet potatoes.

“Even in the trace amounts found in food, these contaminants can alter the developing brain and erode a child’s IQ,” wrote the researchers from the group Healthy Babies Bright Futures. “The impacts add up with each meal or snack a baby eats.”

The researchers also said heavy metal exposure may contribute to ADHD, and three metals — arsenic, cadmium and lead — are known carcinogens. They called on baby-food manufacturers and the government to do more to reduce exposure.

While the findings clearly raise food safety worries, experts not affiliated with the report cautioned parents against panicking or feeling paralyzed about shopping for food for their kids.

This issue isn't new and previous reports have raised red flags about heavy metals in foods, including arsenic in juice and rice. An investigation by Consumer Reports in January found cadmium, arsenic and lead in popular fruit juices.

Heavy metals can enter the environment through pesticides and pollution but they also occur naturally in air, soil and water, so they aren’t entirely avoidable. It’s long been known that crops absorb heavy metals and therefore these contaminants end up in the food supply — not just food for babies but for older children and adults too.

Concerns are greater for young children, who may be particularly vulnerable because their brains are still developing, but there are steps parents can take to minimize any risks.

“I would hate for parents to feel as though this is a panic-inducing kind of a report,” said Dr. Aparna Bole, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Environmental Health. “It’s a cause for us collectively to be concerned, absolutely. But I think that for parents, if they’re doing their best to provide a varied diet for their infants according to the recommendations we’ve always provided, they should not be overly concerned."

The researchers noted that increased attention to the issue of arsenic contamination has led to decreasing levels of the heavy metal in rice cereal and juice over the last decade. They also pointed out that environmental exposures to lead have decreased as it has been phased out of fuels, paints and pesticides.

The new study found low levels of heavy metals in baby foods, so the concern is not that these foods are an immediate threat but that the effects of exposure may build up over time. No one really knows exactly how much exposure to heavy metals in foods causes observable harm but parents can take measures to help mitigate the risks from foods or other sources in the environment, experts say.

“The problem is there’s no safe level of lead, there’s no safe level of arsenic, there’s no safe level of mercury and there’s no safe level of cadmium,” said Tracey Woodruff, director of the Program on Reproductive Health and the Environment at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies how environmental chemicals affect early development.

“Now, of course, the risk is lower if you have less amount. But I think the question people are concerned about, what parents are going to say, is it going to harm my baby? It’s hard to really know,” she said. “What we do know is that doing certain things can ameliorate the risk. A diet that’s rich in fruits and vegetables and proper nutrients can help protect against some of these adverse health effects, like from lead.”

Reducing exposure to heavy metals
The study authors also offered practical advice to help reduce the effects of these metals:

  • opting for more rice-free cereals and snacks
  • avoiding teething biscuits and fruit juices
  • choosing a variety of fruits and vegetables, not just those with sweet potatoes and carrots that tend to absorb higher levels of heavy metals.

Neither making your own baby food nor buying organic reduces the risks because heavy metals are in the food supply regardless and organic food standards don’t cover these heavy metals, the researchers said.

Offering a variety of foods to your baby is key, says Kristi King, a senior pediatric dietitian at Texas Children’s Hospital in Houston and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“Although we know that these metals are naturally occurring, it is important that you provide your young child a variety of foods because each food is going to have a different level of naturally occurring metals,” King said. “So that way your child is not solely dependent on formula and rice cereal, or formula and sweet potatoes. That way we’re providing a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, meats and whole grains so that their exposure is minimized.”

She pointed out that levels of heavy metals in the environment vary across the United States and around the world, so the levels that end up in food depend on where the foods come from, which is another reason why varying food sources is important.

The AAP’s Bole, who is an associate professor of pediatrics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, noted there are other steps parents can take to make sure their kids are on the right track.

“There are a lot of things that parents do to help secure healthy development for their children, such as providing an enriching learning environment and a high-quality preschool,” she said. “I would rather parents invest their energy in thinking about those things. And yes, feed your kids a varied diet and avoid fruit juice.”

Exposure to lead
Depending on where a family lives, Bole said, parents should be on the lookout for other environmental exposures to lead — in Cleveland, for instance, a significant concern is chipped paint in houses or contaminated soil that is tracked into a home — that are more of a threat than baby food.

“That’s by far and away a much bigger risk,” she said. In Flint, Michigan, it was lead-contaminated water that caused the crisis that started in 2014.

Ultimately, we want children to develop a healthy attitude about food, said King, and worrying about every bite that goes in their mouths doesn’t help.

“My advice to parents is stay calm and keep on, because if you get so stressed out then it makes eating not an enjoyable thing for you or for your family, and your children can pick up on that,” she said. “Your child is going to need fruits and vegetables and meats — and by providing a little bit of everything you’re going to minimize the risk of the heavy metals.”

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