New News: Metals in Baby Food -What Does it Mean?

The release of government report caused headlines in noting that many popular baby food products contain the “heavy” metals arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. The report followed up on studies conducted by consumer and environmental groups. There is no “safe” amount for any of these particular metals, but they do occur in in our food supply, both naturally and from human activities.  However, babies are especially at risk from exposure since their bodies are smaller and their organs, particularly their brains, are still developing and particularly vulnerable to damage from these metals. Heavy metal exposure can alter brain development and is associated with lower academic achievement, behavior problems, and illness in children.  There are actionable solutions to the problem of this contamination in the food supply, and in infant foods. Since 2011, baby food companies have been testing products more frequently and switching to safer food sources. According to the environmental organization Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), “current arsenic contamination levels in rice cereal and juice are 37 and 63 percent lower, respectively, than amounts measured a decade ago”. Even so, current levels of heavy metals are of concern to parents and organizations continue to promote the need for change in regulations, business practices, and nutrition education about food choices for infants.

Heavy metals are naturally occurring in soil and water, but levels increase with pollution, pesticides, manufacturing, and can even be introduced through packaging. Consider a sweet potato growing in a field, destined to become pureed baby food. Perhaps the industrial plant next door burns coal and releases pollutants through the smokestack and the farmer sprays pesticides to control weeds. That potato is soaking up all the nutrients from sun, soil, and water but is also soaking up heavy metals and pollutants from its environment. So, it’s easy to see how heavy metals end up in the food supply. The question is, what can we do about it?  The government report encouraged food companies to consider their ingredients and substitute with those produced to minimize these metals, and recommended labeling to help parents make the best choices possible for their infants.

The studies linked above noted foods most likely to contain metals, and parents can minimize exposure of their infants by selecting these foods less often, or in some cases, not at all.  Rice-based foods like rice cereal, rice puff snacks, and baby food whose main ingredient is rice Is one of these foods.  Rice contains the highest levels of inorganic arsenic, which is more dangerous than organically occurring arsenic, due to its growing conditions. Other foods to limit the list include fruit juices (infants under 12 months should not get any juice), root vegetables like sweet potato and carrots, and bottled water. Parents might use wheat cereal or oatmeal as a first grain, and alternate with other grains like quinoa, barley, and couscous.   Rotate sweet potatoes and carrots with other vegetables. Variety will not only provide different nutrients but will lower potential consumption of heavy metals. Reading labels will also help. Some baby foods might be marketed with different flavors but still have rice or sweet potato as the main ingredient.


HBBF proposed making 5 swaps to reduce infant exposure to heavy metal by over 80%! Here they are:

Parents should not worry needlessly, talk to their infant’s primary care provider if concerned, and choose a wide variety of foods for their infant to ensure a healthy diet.

Read the government report here.