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A report out this week saying that baby food sold in the U.S. often contains potentially dangerous substances known as heavy metals has many parents wondering what, if anything, they can feed their babies, and just how serious the risks are.
Here’s what you need to know about the new research, what Consumer Reports and other experts say needs to be done to fix the problem, and, until then, some safer alternatives for infants.
The new study comes from Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a national alliance of scientists and child health advocacy organizations. The organization looked at 168 products across 61 brands, measuring the amount of arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in one sample of each product. Thirteen categories of food were tested, including infant cereals, fruits, vegetables, juices, and snack foods, such as puffs.
Overall, they found at least one of the substances in 95 percent of the products. Such heavy metals have been linked to lower IQs and learning problems in children in the short term, and to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and reproductive problems later in life.
The new testing supports Consumer Reports’ previous research on the safety of foods intended specifically for infants and toddlers, the group most at risk for health problems related to heavy metals. “These new findings are similar to ours both in the types of foods that pose the greatest risk and the levels of these heavy metals in various foods,” says James E. Rogers Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at CR. Our tests had found elevated levels of inorganic arsenic (the toxic form) and other heavy metals in almost half of the fruit juices we tested, and our study of 50 packaged foods for infants and toddlers detected measurable levels of contaminants in every single product.
In the recent study from Healthy Babies Bright Futures, some foods also stood out as being particularly risky. Products made with rice, particularly cereals, were the top sources of heavy metals, especially inorganic arsenic. Four of the seven rice cereals tested by the group had arsenic levels above the proposed Food and Drug Administration limit of 100 parts per billion (ppb). Fruit juices, carrots, and sweet potatoes were also often contaminated with higher levels of heavy metals.
What’s more, 83 percent of the foods tested contained more lead than the 1 ppb limit recommended by public health advocates; 1 of every 5 had more than 10 times that amount.
“For a number of these metals, there’s no known safe level,” says Jane Houlihan, research director at Healthy Babies Bright Futures and a co-author of the report. “Any amount that accumulates over time in a baby’s diet can be a concern.”
These heavy metals are neurotoxins and may affect children’s brain development. “Your body can excrete some of these metals over time, but while they’re circulating through the body, they can cause harm,” Houlihan says. “And some do build up in the body.”
As a result, babies’ IQs may be lowered and they can develop learning and attention issues, research suggests. A study commissioned by the group that looked at food consumed by babies from birth to 2 years attempted to quantify the cumulative effect of on the mental ability of the nation’s children. It concluded that exposure to those heavy metals in foods accounted for a collective loss of 11 million IQ points, with foods containing rice accounting for 20 percent of the points lost.
Why Are Heavy Metals in Baby Food?
Heavy metals are found in soil and water, and crops absorb them as they grow—and some plants are more prone to absorption than others. Rice, for example, absorbs about 10 times more arsenic than other grains absorb.
While the FDA has proposed guidelines for baby cereals and fruit juices, it has not yet finalized them, despite saying that it would do so by the end of 2018. Healthy Babies Bright Futures points out that arsenic levels in rice cereal and juice have declined 36 percent and 75 percent, respectively, during the past 10 years, a drop that Houlihan attributes to the FDA’s draft guidance. She notes that industry efforts, particularly those involving improved irrigation processes, have been instrumental in making levels drop.
But CR believes that the government needs to take additional steps. “This study reinforces the urgent need for the FDA to set a goal of no detectable levels of these heavy metals in baby and children’s food, and to set incremental targets for industry to meet along the way,” says Michael Hansen, Ph.D., senior scientist at CR. “More immediately, the FDA should finalize its proposed limit of 100 ppb for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal and should lower the limit for lead in juice from 50 ppb to 5 ppb.”
In the absence of these FDA actions, baby food companies say they’re working to address the problem. Major baby food producers such as Beech-Nut and Gerber joined with academics and food advocacy organizations to form the Baby Food Council in January 2019. “As part of the council, the companies are sharing information and working collectively towards a common goal—to lower levels of heavy metals in their products,” says Randy Worobo, Ph.D., a professor of food safety in the department of food science at Cornell University and a member and spokesperson for the council.
The USA Rice Federation, an industry group, says it takes the issue of arsenic in rice seriously in all food, but especially baby food. “We are working on it and not hiding from it, to make sure levels are within the limits proposed by the FDA,” Michael Klein, a spokesperson for the organization, says of the FDA’s 100 ppb limit.
Healthy Babies Bright Futures' Guide to Safer Alternatives for Baby Food
What Parents Can Do
Once parents are aware of these contaminant issues, they can easily find replacement foods, Houlihan says. Choosing lower-risk alternatives for five high-risk foods—including carrots, sweet potatoes, and infant rice cereals (see table below)—can reduce a child’s risk from exposure to heavy metals by 80 percent, according to Healthy Babies Bright Futures. For example, teething biscuits and rice rusks were problem foods in the organization’s research, as well as CR’s. Houlihan suggests that a teething baby might be soothed by a frozen banana or chilled cucumber instead.
Given how readily available substitutes are, Healthy Babies Bright Futures recommends eliminating rice-based cereals from babies’ diets altogether, and CR’s experts agree. “There are other infant grain cereals that provide the nutrients babies need but are much lower in inorganic arsenic, says CR’s Rogers.
CR also agrees that feeding your baby a wide range of foods is key, because this avoids the risk of contaminants building up in the child’s system. “It’s important to remember that a healthy diet consists of a variety of foods,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a nutritionist at CR. “Carrots and sweet potatoes are sources of important nutrients like beta carotene, potassium, and fiber, and you can feed them to your child in rotation with other vegetables. What’s key is eating a balance of healthy foods.”
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