Oct. 17, 2019 -- Nearly all foods made for babies contain at least one toxic heavy metal that can harm brain development, according to a large new study that tested 13 different types of baby foods, including puffs, infant formula, teething biscuits, juices, cereals, and purees.
The study was conducted by a nonprofit called Healthy Babies Bright Futures. It tested 168 containers from 61 brands for the heavy metals arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. The foods were purchased at major retail stores across the U.S.
Ninety-five percent of the baby foods tested contained one or more toxic metals. About a quarter of them contained all four. Only nine of the samples tested had no toxic metals detected.
The study points out that the FDA has failed to set safety limits or even health guidelines for 88% of the foods tested in the study. The authors have called on the agency to push baby food makers to take steps to lower heavy metals in their products.
The group, made up of scientists, pediatricians, and other experts, say even the trace amounts of heavy metals found in baby food can “alter the developing brain and erode a child’s IQ. The impacts add up with each meal or snack a baby eats.”
“What’s driving the problem is rice,” says Charlotte Brody, a registered nurse who is national director of Healthy Babies Bright Futures.
She says nearly all baby foods made with rice tested positive for toxins. Brody says the experts expected to find arsenic in rice products. That’s been a well-known problem for years. But, she says, they were surprised that they often found rice was tainted with lead, cadmium, and mercury, too.
Brody says if a baby food or snack contains rice, “our testing suggests there’s a problem.”
What’s more, she says, it doesn’t do you any good to buy organic or more expensive brands.
“I wish I could say you could shop your way out of this problem, but you can’t,” she says.
Other foods that contained arsenic included apple juice, 100% fruit juice blends, and grape juice.
Brody says heavy metals in baby foods are “a legacy problem.” They come from pesticides that were sprayed on farms for generations. Though most of those products containing toxic lead and arsenic are no longer used, their remnants continue to taint some areas of farmland around the country and the world.
In a statement, Gerber points to that problem as well, saying that “many food safety and agricultural experts suggest that it is not feasible to achieve a ‘zero’ level of these elements -- even in homemade foods made from organic ingredients.”
Gerber, whose baby foods were among those tested in the report, says it regularly tests its food and is committed to cutting “heavy metal levels to as low as possible.”
“The health and safety of the children who eat our foods has always been our No. 1 priority -- and always will be,” the statement says.
Brody says the healthiest change that parents can make is to steer clear of rice in all its forms. Look for snacks and cereals that contain different kinds of grains, such as oatmeal. Instead of rice teething biscuits, use frozen fruits like bananas or strawberries to soothe sore gums.
When making rice at home, choose white basmati rice. White rice contains less arsenic than brown rice because arsenic concentrates in the husk. It’s true that brown rice is more nutritious than white, but Brody says the metals are a problem, “so we need to get those nutrients from some other food.”
A study in Consumer Reports found that rice from California, India, and Pakistan tends to have the lowest levels of heavy metals.
FDA testing has confirmed that it is possible to further reduce arsenic levels in rice by cooking it in extra water, the way pasta is cooked. The FDA recommends using 6 to 10 cups of water to every 1 cup of rice.
Other changes parents can make to reduce heavy metals in a baby’s diet include giving them water instead of fruit juice, and feeding them a variety of fruits and vegetables instead of relying too heavily on carrots and sweet potatoes. As root vegetables, carrots and sweet potatoes tend to absorb more heavy metals from the soil than other kinds of produce.