New Report Finds Toxic Metals In Baby Food: What Parents Need To Know

A congressional report said popular baby food brands sell foods with heavy metals, like arsenic and lead. So is homemade the only way to go?
A new report says baby foods may contain dangerous levels of heavy metals, which can be harmful to growing brains.
Karl Tapales via Getty Images
A new report says baby foods may contain dangerous levels of heavy metals, which can be harmful to growing brains.

Congressional investigators have found “dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals” in many popular baby food brands, according to a new report released Thursday.

The investigators examined a wide range of rice cereals, purees, puffs and juices from Nurture (which sells Happy Family Organics), Beech-Nut Nutrition, Hain Celestial Group (which sells the Earth’s Best Organics brand) and Gerber. They allege those companies have permitted the sale of foods tainted with arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.

The investigators also noted they were “greatly concerned” that Walmart, Campbell Soup and Sprout Organic Foods did not cooperate with their inquiries.

All of the baby food manufacturers cited in the report have taken issue with it in some form or another — as well as noting that the Food and Drug Administration does not set federal standards for toxic heavy metals in baby foods.

All of which is deeply alarming for parents who feed their babies store-bought puffs and purees, as millions of parents do. In 2020 alone, baby food was an $8 billion industry in the United States.

So HuffPost Parents spoke to Tanya Altmann — a California-based pediatrician, spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics, and co-author of “What to Feed Your Baby: A Pediatrician’s Guide to the 11 Essential Foods to Guarantee Veggie-Loving, No-Fuss, Healthy-Eating Kids” — about how to proceed.

Try to make your own food if it’s possible.

Unfortunately, the new report is not the first to point to the presence of toxic metals in baby foods sold in the U.S. The congressional effort followed a 2019 investigation from the watchdog group Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which looked at nearly 170 different baby foods and found that 95% had lead, 73% had arsenic, 75% had cadmium and 32% had mercury.

“It’s something that comes up every few years,” Altmann said of probes into the safety of baby foods.

Exposure to heavy metals is particularly concerning because it can harm babies’ neurological development and long-term brain function, the new report states.

“Because babies are in their critical years of growth and development, they may be more susceptible to levels of toxins and substances that may not affect older children and adults as much,” Altmann said.

All of which leads her to conclude that as much as possible, parents should make the foods they feed their babies at home ― even though that is not a perfect fix either.

“A lot of these toxins and substances are just in our environment. They’re in fruits and vegetables. In the soil. In the water,” Altmann said.

But babies have to eat, and she believes parents probably have a better shot at not exposing their babies to dangerous levels of heavy metals when they prepare their food at home, rather than relying entirely on store-bought options. Note that these heavy metals are of greater concern when babies are exposed to them repeatedly over time.

Of course, nothing is as easy as popping the top off a pouch puree. But “making” food at home really can be simple.

“You can simply steam broccoli or sweet potatoes, fork-mash it, and add a bit of breast milk or water,” suggested Altmann, who said that she is a working mom herself and knows how difficult it is for parents to find those extra minutes.

Mash up avocados, bananas or fish (if your baby is ready for it). Babies do not need fancy purees.

Opt for organic and local foods when you can.

In the same way that parents can’t totally avoid these heavy metals exposures by making food at home, they can’t do so by purchasing only organic store-bought foods. Federal organic standards don’t actually address heavy metal contaminates, and many of the products looked at in the new report were labeled organic.

But in general, Altmann still advises parents to opt for organic as much as possible.

This can be prohibitively expensive, so parents should focus on buying organic versions of the fruits and vegetables on the Environmental Working Group’s “dirty dozen” list.

Altmann also urged parents, when possible, to shop at local farmers markets. Those products might not necessarily be certified organic, but the vendors should be able to speak to how their produce was grown.

Bear in mind that over the next few weeks and months, some organic baby food brands may try to capitalize on the latest report by marketing themselves as a “safe” alternative. But without regulation, it is impossible for most parents to properly vet those claims.

Focus on variety.

Offering your baby a variety of foods is a good idea for several reasons, Altmann said. Research clearly shows that exposing babies to a range of flavors and textures can help work against pickiness and fussiness. And increasingly, experts understand that exposing babies to a wide variety of potentially allergenic foods (like eggs and peanuts) can help prevent subsequent food allergies.

It may also decrease the risk of high exposure to certain heavy metals or toxins that can occur if a baby’s diet is loaded up with one or two particular items. Different foods have different levels of metals in them.

“Offering your baby a variety of foods can help decrease their exposure to specific toxins and substances that happen to be innate in certain foods,” Altmann explained.

The 2019 report on toxic exposures from baby foods echoed that idea. It argued that parents can substantially decrease their babies’ exposure to heavy metals by simply ensuring they are fed a variety of fruits and vegetables, rather than relying on the very popular options of carrots and sweet potatoes. Those two foods generally absorb higher levels of heavy metals as they’re grown.

Take a hard look at puffed rice, teething biscuits, infant rice cereal and juice.

We know ― all of team HuffPost Parents’ babies loved puffs too. But a few relatively “simple changes can significantly lower a baby’s exposures to heavy metal contamination,” the 2019 report said.

Its authors called for parents to opt for rice-free snacks over puffed rice; to eschew teething biscuits in favor of cold bananas, cucumbers or other soothing foods; to offer water instead of juice; and to avoid infant rice cereal. Those four changes, along with giving babies a variety of fruits and vegetables instead of focusing on just one or two (again, especially carrots and sweet potatoes), can have a significant impact, the authors said.

“The safer choices contain 80% less arsenic, lead and other toxic heavy metals, on average, than the riskier picks,” they concluded.

Know that babies can start eating “real” food pretty early on.

Although there’s some debate around exactly when babies should start eating real food, experts generally agree the sweet spot is between four and six months.

At that point, babies are still getting most of their nutrition from breast milk or formula, Altmann said. So even if you do feed your baby some store-bought purees, they’re not getting them in huge amounts. But the new report may prompt parents to start feeding their babies real foods a bit sooner than they otherwise might have, which Altmann generally thinks is a good thing.

“By the time they are eating larger and larger amounts, you can advance to more soft pieces of regular, healthy foods that the rest of the family is eating,” she said.

(Bonus: that’s easier on parents who don’t have to make or buy a separate meal.)

Again, these are not perfect fixes. In order to keep children safe, baby food companies must reduce heavy metals in their products, the federal government needs to establish and enforce clear standards, and we all need to take immediate steps to reduce the pollutants in our food, water and air.

But Altmann said she does not want parents to feel helpless, particularly amid a global pandemic that has already left so many feeling overwhelmed.

“Even small changes,” she said, “can make a huge difference in your child’s health.”