95 percent of tested baby foods in U.S. contain toxic metals, report says — here's what parents need to know

A new study found that the vast majority of baby foods tested contain heavy metals, which can harm a child’s brain development.

In the study, commissioned by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) and conducted by the toxicology and economic research firm Abt Associates, tests were performed on 168 different containers of baby food from 61 U.S. baby food brands. Researchers found heavy metals — specifically, arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury — in 95 percent of the baby foods tested.

As the report points out, all of the heavy metals are “developmental neurotoxins,” adding, “they can harm a baby’s developing brain and nervous system” and “are linked to IQ loss from exposures early in life.”

The majority of baby food tested (40 percent) contained three different heavy metals, with 26 percent of baby foods containing all four heavy metals. Only nine baby foods (5 percent) were free of heavy metals. Lead was the most common heavy metal, found in 94 percent of baby foods, followed by cadmium, which was in 75 percent of baby foods. That was followed by arsenic (73 percent of baby foods) and mercury (32 percent).

“We were surprised that so many of the baby foods had more than one heavy metal,” Charlotte Brody, a registered nurse and the national director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures, tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “The impact is additive. A little bit of lead, a little bit of arsenic and a little bit cadmium add up.”

Infant rice cereal and rice-based snacks were the worst offenders. “These popular baby foods are not only high in inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form of arsenic, but also are nearly always contaminated with all four toxic metals,” according to the report.

A new study that tested U.S. baby food found that 95 percent contained heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, which are harmful to children's brain development. (Photo: Getty Images)
A new study that tested U.S. baby food found that 95 percent contained heavy metals, including arsenic and lead, which are harmful to children's brain development. (Photo: Getty Images)

Heavy metals in foods

Heavy metals, like arsenic, are found naturally in the environment (as well as through pollution) and can “enter the food supply through soil, water or air,” according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Certain crops are more likely to absorb these heavy metals — notably, rice, leafy greens and root vegetables, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, which the reports says retain more than most other types of fruits and vegetables.

But in some cases, fresh is the better way to go. The report found that peaches and green beans from the baby food aisle are “less likely to contain detectable levels of lead than canned versions of these foods, while carrot and sweet potato baby foods have higher lead detection rates than their peeled, fresh counterparts.”

Improving food safety standards can make a significant difference. The report urges the FDA to take action by establishing health-protective standards, including a heavy metals testing program for baby food, as well as factoring the cumulative health effects of infants consuming multiple types of heavy metals found in baby foods. “When FDA and baby food companies address one contaminant in one type of food, children benefit,” noted the report. “But truly protecting children necessitates addressing the many contaminants that collectively harm a child’s healthy development.”

Adds Brody: “Parents shouldn’t have to worry about this. Parents should be able to buy any food that’s on the shelf and know that it’s as safe as it can be.”

How to protect your baby

There are steps that parents can take to reduce their baby’s exposure to heavy metals found in food. It’s worth noting that going organic may not necessarily help. According to the report, “Organic standards do not address these contaminants.” Consumer Reports’ own testing of baby foods in 2018 reached the same conclusion, stating, “Organic foods were as likely to contain heavy metals as conventional foods.”

However, peeling produce when possible can help by removing some of the heavy metals in the skin — although, as Brody says, “it’s a shame because there are nutrients in the peel.”

In general, regularly giving your baby different types of foods — not just relying on sweet potatoes and carrots multiple times a week — also helps. “It’s like mercury in tuna — the best way around it is to just not eat tuna every day,” says Brody.

Parents can also make specific food swaps to help reduce a baby’s risk of exposure to these heavy metals. The researchers recommend:

  • Swap infant rice cereal for oatmeal, barley, quinoa, buckwheat or multigrain infant cereals

  • Swap puff (rice) snacks for rice-free ones, such as cut-up apples, unsweetened applesauce, bananas, cheese, peaches and yogurt

  • Swap teething biscuits and rice husks for frozen bananas or peeled, chilled cucumber

  • Swap rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas or ones labeled “U.S.” (all of which have the highest arsenic levels, according to Consumer Reports) with basmati rice grown in California, India and Pakistan or U.S. sushi rice, which have the lowest arsenic levels. Brown rice tends to have more arsenic than white rice.

  • Swap fruit juice (which can contain traces of arsenic and lead, along with being high in sugar) for plain water

  • Reduce how often babies consume carrots and sweet potatoes (both high in lead and cadmium) each week and serve a variety of fruits and vegetables instead

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