Commercial Baby Food May Be Contaminated with Heavy Metals, Report Shows

Commercial baby food may be contaminated by heavy metals, according to some reports. We give you all the information you need to be more careful with your little one.
Commercial Baby Food May Be Contaminated with Heavy Metals, Report Shows

Last update: 01 August, 2021

A wide range of commercial baby food products is available on the market. However, a new report issued by the House Committee of Oversight and Reform has revealed that some of these products contain high levels of toxic metals.

The elements involved are lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury. These can get into food through the environment, water, or soil where the raw materials for the products grow.

One out of every five baby foods analyzed contained more than 10 times the limit of 1 part per billion of lead, established as a public health measure. According to the report, these metals endanger children’s long-term brain function and neurological development.

What does the EDF report on baby food say?

A 2017 report by the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) considered data from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Total Diet Study (TDS) from 2003 to 2013.

The TDS has found heavy metals in foods since the 1970s, and, since 2003, 20% of baby foods were found to have detectable levels of lead. The report estimated that more than 1 million children exceeded the lead consumption limit set by the FDA.

For that reason, the study introduced a new, much more sensitive analytical method in 2014. The aim was to detect very low values of heavy metals in baby food. As a result, they found a higher percentage of contaminated food, 29.3%, compared to only 12.7% before 2014.

Two years later the analysis found a significant drop in lead values for baby fruit juices such as apple and grape. In 2017, the trend was the same, with only 11% of juices found to be contaminated. However, 93% of foods such as sweet potatoes, carrots, baby teething cookies and rice crackers showed high levels of lead.

And now, the latest report issued by the U.S. Congress reveals shocking new data. The findings were based on a study conducted in 2019 by nonprofit organizations such as Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

The study found that out of 168 commercial baby foods, 160 were contaminated with heavy metals. For this reason, Congress deemed it necessary to set stricter standards for commercial baby food manufacturers and regulate them vigorously.

A baby with a spoon in its mouth.
Commercial baby foods may have traces of lead above what are considered safe limits.

What metals did the study find?

The latest research on contamination of baby food found that 95% of commercial products were contaminated with lead.

75% of all baby food contained cadmium and 73% contained arsenic. 32% of commercial products were contaminated with mercury, while a quarter of the 168 foods tested contained a mixture of the four toxic metals.

What are the most contaminated foods?

The authors of the 2019 study, Jane Houlihan and Charlotte Brody, noted that even the small amounts of the toxic metals in those foods can cause serious problems to a child’s health.

The products with the highest risk of causing harm were commercial baby foods with sweet potato puree, rice cereals, fruit juices and sweet snacks. This is consistent with the 2016 FDA report which found that 33 of 39 foods tested were contaminated with heavy metals.

Rice-based foods, such as infant cereals and snack foods, ranked first as the most toxic. They contain a lot of inorganic arsenic and often have traces of all four toxic metals.

How can heavy metals in baby food affect development?

The report presented by Congress highlights that small amounts of heavy metals in food can alter brain development and lower a child’s IQ. This has an impact on every meal, including snacks.

In addition, the report clarifies that exposure to these toxic metals can lead to a decrease in future economic productivity. Consumption also means an increased risk of antisocial and criminal behavior in the future.

According to Thomas Matte, even low levels of lead in food can lead to poor cognitive development, behavioral disorders, and short stature in young children. Once damage occurs it can’t be treated or reversed.

Irritability, abdominal pain, nervousness, poor appetite, headache, and difficulty concentrating are some early symptoms of lead poisoning.

The World Health Organization (WHO) emphasizes that prolonged exposure to arsenic can cause skin lesions, developmental problems, neurotoxicity, and low scores on intellectual tests. Meanwhile, a group of doctors warns that the toxic effects of cadmium are more evident in the bones and kidneys, with people with low iron levels being more vulnerable.

Another study published in the journal Hospital Nutrition states that mercury affects the development of the nervous system in fetuses. It can also alter cognitive function, reproduction, and cardiovascular risk in newborns.

How to avoid baby foods with heavy metals

These are some recommendations to consider in order to reduce your baby’s risk of exposure to heavy metals:

  • Check labels well: the label gives details about the main ingredients of the product, which can help you identify the risk of it containing heavy metals.
  • Give your child natural foods and go for variety: children need a balanced diet that includes a wide variety of fruits and vegetables, and cereals, and lean meats.
  • Vary the cereals you give your child: rice is good, but other cereals such as oats, quinoa, barley, and couscous are also great healthy options.
  • Check your water supply: well water or old pipes can have heavy metals in them.
  • Substitute whole fruit for juice: whole or pureed fruit slices are safer than juice. Some juices contain high levels of heavy metals that the body absorbs more easily.
  • Prepare your own baby food: besides being more economical, you avoid the contamination that can occur during processing and packaging.
  • Introduce healthy fish: some fish are a source of mercury and other metals. As such, try to avoid swordfish, white tuna, shark and albacore. Salmon, cod, light tuna, white fish and pollock are healthier options.
Healthy food stacked in plastic boxes.
It’s healthier to prepare food for your baby, rather than buying ready-made commercial products.

Report details

The 2017 report included some concerning information about lead content in baby food. For example, analysis of 2164 commercial baby food samples found that lead levels had increased relative to previous years:

  • 20% of all samples contained lead, compared to 14% of other foods.
  • 8 baby foods contained lead in more than 40% of the samples.
  • Baby grape juice had the highest values for lead when compared to other juices.
  • Sweet potato and carrot purees, teething cookies, and rice crackers contained high quantities of lead.

Until more regulations are applied to the baby food processing industry, it’s probably better to prepare fresh food at home. This will reduce your baby’s exposure to toxic metals and you can choose what foods you give them.