Homemade and prepackaged baby foods both contain toxic heavy metals: study

·6 min read

Nearly all baby foods — both store-bought and homemade — that American parents feed their children contain detectable amounts of toxic heavy metals, a new study has found.

The study, conducted by the Health Babies Bright Futures alliance, found that 94 percent of pre-packaged foods marketed for babies and toddlers contain heavy metals like lead and arsenic.

As it turns out, however, the exact same percentage applied to homemade purees and pre-packaged “family food” options geared toward the entire family, the study found.

The new findings build upon a 2019 study conducted by the same group, in which 95 percent of store-bought baby foods tested were contaminated with heavy metals.

This time, the alliance — which includes nonprofit organizations, philanthropies and scientists — set out to determine whether homemade options were, in fact, a superior choice.

After assessing 288 different products, the researchers said they “found no evidence” to corroborate this notion.

“Heavy metal levels varied widely by food type, not by who made the food,” the authors stated.

Baby food safety has increasingly emerged on the national radar, particularly following a 2021 congressional investigation that identified “dangerous levels” of toxins like lead and arsenic in such products.

Thus far, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has set or proposed limits for heavy metals in two types of baby foods: infant rice cereal and juice. The FDA also established its Closer to Zero program, with a variety of goals for reducing early childhood exposure to heavy metals.

“Parents shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of their babies’ meals and snacks,” lead author Jane Houlihan, the alliance’s research director, said in a statement.

“But until the FDA sets protective limits, the good news is that parents can skip and swap out certain foods to limit toxic chemical exposures,” Houlihan added.

The worst offenders identified in Thursday’s report were rice cakes and crisped rice cereal, which contained higher levels of arsenic than any other foods tested.

“Both stand out as foods to avoid for children and adults alike,” the authors stated.

Other heavily contaminated foods included rice-based puffs and brown rice — both of which the report also suggested avoiding entirely — as well as rice-based teething biscuits and rusks, white rice, raisins, non-rice teething crackers, granola bars with raisins and oat-ring cereals.

To help relieve teething pain, the authors suggested offering a frozen banana or a peeled cucumber instead of rice-based teething biscuits and rusks.

The 10 least-contaminated foods tested in the survey were bananas, grits, baby food brand meats, butternut squash, lamb, apples, pork, eggs, oranges and watermelon.

Additional foods with very low heavy metal contamination included unsweetened applesauce, yogurt, fresh and frozen fruit, baby food brand fruits, pureed home-cooked meat, beans, infant formula, and green beans and peas — the fresh, frozen and baby food varieties.

The report also identified 22 different food items to serve in moderation or in rotation. Some of these items included carrots, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, canned fruit, peanut butter, leafy greens, non-rice grains, basmati rice, 100 percent fruit juice and non-rice teething biscuits.

While the presence of heavy metals may be widespread in baby foods, this problem has a disproportionate impact on low-income families and families of color, according to the report.

Hispanic infants and toddlers are 2.5 times more likely than other children to consume rice on a given day, while Asian Americans eat almost 10 times more rice than the national average, the authors noted.

Meanwhile, Black babies are more likely to be exposed to lead in formula, which can be a uniquely concentrated source of exposure when mixed with contaminated tap water, according to the report.

“FDA’s Closer to Zero program needs to live up to its name and set limits that will make the heavy metal contamination of our food much closer to zero,” Charlotte Brody, national director at Healthy Babies Bright Futures, said in a statement.

“To get the levels of heavy metals meaningfully closer to zero, FDA must go beyond the baby food aisle and set strong standards for these contaminants,” Brody added.

The Hill has reached out to the FDA for comment.

Mark Corkins, chair of the Committee on Nutrition for the American Academy of Pediatrics, said he viewed Thursday’s study as the logical follow-up to the 2019 survey — after which many experts, including himself, suggested that parents switch to homemade options.

“So now they’ve come back and said, ‘Well, so we recommended that, but we sent shoppers into all sorts of stores, and guess what? The food you’re making it from is high in heavy metals as well,’” Corkins, who was not involved in the study, told The Hill.

“The source is going to be the same no matter what,” he continued. “It’s going to be farms and produce grown in dirt and water that’s the same dirt and water that the other produce is grown in.”

Rice is particularly problematic for precisely that reason, as it grows in copious amounts of water and readily takes up arsenic, explained Corkins, who is also a professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center.

Because the source of heavy metals is from soil and water, and not from pesticides, this also means that buying organic produce would not make a difference, Corkins confirmed.

While heavy metals may be detectable in nearly all foods parents feed their babies, Corkins acknowledged that “nobody knows what a safe level is.”

“We know these heavy metals have no biologic role,” he said. “Nobody knows — is this really dangerous, or it’s a little dangerous or it’s a whole lot dangerous?”

As far as systemic change is concerned, Corkins acknowledged that the report’s authors called upon the FDA to expedite efforts to set guidelines for heavy metals in baby foods.

Yet rather than supporting an all-or-nothing approach, he said he would prefer more gradual regulation — to ensure that technology can keep pace with policy.

For example, Corkins said, if one farmer’s land has lower cadmium or arsenic levels, consumers would then end up buying specifically from that individual — driving up the price of vegetables.

“Even if there’s a little bit of some contamination, to be honest, you’re better off eating fruits and vegetables than you are eating a bag of chips,” he said.

Corkins maintained, however, that the FDA does need to give industry a bit of a “push” and start setting some graduated standards.

Asked what he would suggest to parents reading the report’s findings, Corkins said that “the advice to deal with this is the best advice from nutrition anyway” — offering their children a variety of foods.

Contamination can vary from vegetable to vegetable and from batch to batch, he said, stressing that washing and peeling produce can also help minimize the toxins.

“We need to do the things like washing and peeling and then mixing it up,” Corkins added.

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