Some commercially prepared baby foods can contain as much sugar and unhealthy fats as junk food. A recent Congressional report has also found some of the largest commercially prepared baby food brands also contain significant levels of toxic heavy metals.1,2
Commercially prepared baby food may also contain other questionable ingredients, including genetically modified soy, synthetic vitamins, inorganic minerals and excessive levels of protein. These are packed into convenient containers of baby food, which also lack the immune-boosting nutrients found in breast milk.
Although many pediatricians continue to advise parents to feed rice cereal mixed with breastmilk or formula as a baby’s first meal, I believe this is irresponsible advice. Feeding carbohydrate-packed white rice3 can set babies up for a lifetime of bad eating habits and place them at risk for diabetes.4
During processing, the vitamins, fiber and other nutrients in white rice are stripped away, leaving carbohydrates that turn to sugar and raise insulin levels. The result of this congressional review also supports a 2019 study that found toxic metal in 95% of the baby food tested and also found the neurotoxic contaminant perchlorate.5
Congressional Report Finds Heavy Metals in Baby Food
The report, published in February 2021, revealed there were significant levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury found in some of the most popular commercial baby foods on grocery store shelves. The tests were requested by the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy after receiving reports there were high levels of heavy metals in baby food.6
Products from seven manufacturers of baby foods in the U.S. were tested. Four of the companies also provided their internal test policies and results. Some companies tested the ingredients and finished products and others tested only one or the other. However, there were three companies, including Walmart, Campbell Soup company and Sprout Organic Foods, that did not cooperate.7
“The Subcommittee is greatly concerned that their lack of cooperation might be obscuring the presence of even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products than their competitors’ products.”
Campbell Soup company sells baby food under the Plum Organics baby food brand and Walmart baby food brand is Parent’s Choice. Chair of the subcommittee Raja Krishnamoorthi, D-Ill., spoke with a journalist from The Washington Post after the report was released, saying:8
“Over the last decade advocates and scientists have brought this to the attention of the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA must set standards and regulate this industry much more closely, starting now. It’s shocking that parents are basically being completely left in the lurch by their government.”
While it may have been shocking to Krishnamoorthi, it fits with past actions from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The report discovered that one of the dangers of testing only ingredients was in some cases the finished product tested up to 93% higher in heavy metals than when just the ingredients were tested.9
For instance, when the levels of heavy metals in Hain Celestial Group baby foods were tested, the difference in results between testing the ingredients and the finished product may have been the result of added ingredients, such as vitamin and mineral premix.10
Testing Revealed Significant Heavy Metal Levels
Arsenic is found in soil and water, poses a significant risk to human health and is the leading substance on the priority list from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR).11
The Washington Post reports that only rice cereal has a maximum set for inorganic arsenic, 100 parts per billion (ppb). Yet the FDA has set “maximum allowable levels in bottled water,” which are far below the level set for baby food, at 10 ppb.12
Documents from Hain Celestial Group, makers of Earth’s Best Organic baby food, showed many of the ingredients had arsenic levels as high as 309 ppb and at least 24 ingredients in the company’s baby food products measured higher than 100 ppb of arsenic.13
The second substance on the ATSDR list is lead. The Washington Post reports that to date, there is no set federal standard for lead allowed in baby food. Although some experts may believe 1 ppb is an acceptable exposure level in baby food, the American Academy of Pediatrics writes, “Lead exposure has been associated with health, learning and behavior problems, and no amount is considered safe.”14
The congressional report shows that ingredients used in Beech-Nut baby food measure as high as 886.9 ppb of lead and 483 ingredients had levels measuring over 5 ppb. Jason Jacobs, vice president of food safety, quality and innovation at Beech-Nut, commented on the results of the report, saying:15
“Beech-Nut established heavy metal testing standards 35 years ago, and we continuously review and strengthen them wherever possible. We look forward to working with the FDA, in partnership with the Baby Food Council, on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry.”
Environmental Defense Fund16 analyzed raw data from the FDA’s Total Diet study from 2014 to 2016. The analysis showed lead levels in food designed for babies and children, including teething biscuits, arrowroot cookies, carrots and sweet potatoes, were high.
They analyzed data from August 2019 and found when results for baby food were compared against samples of fruit and vegetables, baby carrots and peeled, boiled carrots had significantly lower lead levels than baby food carrot puree. In fact, 83% to 100% of samples of baby food root vegetables, crackers and cookies had detectable levels of lead.
The report17 also found high levels of cadmium and mercury in baby foods from all the companies tested and the levels tested in baby food for each of the heavy metals is “multiples higher than allowed under existing regulations for other products.” The congressional report found:18
“The test results of baby foods and their ingredients eclipse those levels: including results up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to 5 times the mercury level.”
Does the Dose Make the Poison?
FoodNavigator-USA19 interviewed executive director of the Clean Label Project (CLP) Jackie Bowen, whose organization has been advocating for manufacturing companies to think carefully about how raw materials are sourced and what ends up on the label.
Bowen pointed out that food safety regulations in the U.S. are often focused on microbial contaminants rather than toxins. In the absence of regulatory guidance, manufacturers are left to determine what they believe is safe for release to the grocery stores.
However, as reported by The Washington Post,20 even when baby foods have tested higher than the companies’ limit set for heavy metals, the products continue to be sold to the public. In answer to the question of whether the dose makes the poison, Bowen points to the responsibility and power that consumers have.21
“Consumers are new arbiters of truth and safety with Mom’s serving as the Chief Operating Officer of their households. Over the past five years, there have been at least four consumer advocacy calls to action about heavy metals in baby food. Low level of repeat exposure to heavy metals has been linked to cancer and infertility. It is past time for brands to recognize that parents expect better.
As to the old adage that the dose is the poison, contaminants like lead are the exception that proves the rule: the Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics have all independently stated there is no safe level of lead for children. In this case, the poison is the poison.”
Heavy Metals Have Long-Term Effect on Babies
Dan Fabricant, CEO and president of the Natural Products Association, once called the CLP’s statements on contaminants in protein powder “defamatory.” He attempted to justify the toxic exposure, saying:22
“Just look at the language and how they use the term ‘detectable levels.’ It’s all made to look very scandalous and salacious. Everything suggests implicitly that there is a critical public health issue. We believe this is bad for the brands themselves and bad for the industry.”
It’s important to remember that any detectable level of heavy metals is concerning since they are not easily removed by the body. A paper in the British Medical Bulletin called exposure to cadmium, lead, arsenic and mercury — the heavy metals found in many baby foods — a “main threat to human health.”23
By far the most studied of the heavy metals is lead, which has demonstrated a particular danger as a neurotoxin in children.24 Scientists have been aware of this for the last 100 years and research has focused on the effects of the poison on the developing nervous system for the past 60 years. Despite this growing body of evidence and public awareness, legislation has not been effective.
One review of the literature25 in emerging market countries reported on blood and urine concentrations of heavy metals. These were generally found to be higher than U.S. reference values. The analysis identified the health effects that were associated with this exposure.
They found associations between gestational age, birth weight and cognitive scores with levels of arsenic in the blood or urine. Children drinking arsenic contaminated water demonstrated skin lesions and different degrees of peripheral neuropathy.
With cadmium exposure, researchers found low birth weight, slightly decreased IQ and smaller head circumference. In the 55 articles focused on lead exposure, there were negative associations between measured blood levels and mental development, and neurological and behavioral test scores.
Other health conditions included low birth weight, stunted growth and aplastic anemia. Twelve studies were focused on mercury exposure and found lower mental and psychomotor developmental test scores as well as children ages 9 to 17 years with ataxia, dysdiadokinesis and pathological reflexes.
Consider Homemade Baby Foods When Possible
There is no denying that prepackaged baby foods are convenient when you are traveling. However, you do have options to lower the risk of exposure to heavy metals and other toxins by making baby food at home using organically grown and locally sourced fruits and vegetables. As I mentioned earlier, steer clear of rice paste cereals as they are high in arsenic and carbohydrates and low in nutrients.
When you make your own food at home, you also have greater control over what goes into the foods as you can select higher quality fruits and vegetables and steer clear of preservatives, additives and added sugar. It reduces food waste and it saves you money in the long run.
For instance, Happy Family Organics26 compares the price of two to three containers of baby food against that of six pears, which can be pureed for 10 or more meals. With a vegetable peeler, steamer basket and blender or food processor you have all you need to get started making and freezing baby food.
Most pediatricians recommend exclusively breastfeeding to at least 6 months of age and introducing your baby’s first spoons of solid food at around 6 months.27 Making baby food at home also improves the nutrient value, since many baby food purees have a long shelf life, which may even be older than your baby.
You also can control the thickness of the puree you make at home, which helps you transition your baby from purees to solid food as they grow older. Once you finish making the food you can add it to an ice cube tray, cover it and let it freeze for at least five hours before transferring to a freezer-safe container.
Remove the food the day before and place into the refrigerator to thaw. It can also be warmed on the stovetop over medium to low heat. Just be sure to stir the food completely so there are no hot spots and test the food yourself, so you don’t burn your baby’s tongue.