Heavy metals at levels called “troublesome” are lurking in foods commonly eaten by babies and toddlers, according to a new Consumer Reports investigation.
Scientists studied 50 packaged foods made for children, from cereals to snacks, testing three samples of each.
They estimated how much of each food a child typically eats, then looked at medical research on what levels of the heavy metals could cause health issues.
“We found troublesome levels of heavy metals, in particular inorganic arsenic, cadmium, or lead, in every single sample,” says James Dickerson, PhD, Consumer Reports’ chief scientific officer. “These heavy metals shouldn’t be in food, period.”
They can damage the nervous system, cause cancer, and harm children’s development, he says.
Yet, “it’s not that surprising” the heavy metals were there, he says. They are found in nature.
Most heavy metals in food come from water or soil contaminated through farming or manufacturing processes, from the use of pesticides, or pollution from leaded gasoline, the report explains.
What was especially concerning, Dickerson says, is that about two-thirds, or 68%, of the tested foods had very high levels of the heavy metals.
“What we are concerned about is if you feed your child this [food with high levels of heavy metals], over the lifetime of their development, particularly during birth to 4, then you will have an increased risk of having cancer, for example.”
The effects are long term, he says, not short term. It’s not that children will vomit or have other kinds of immediate reactions, Dickerson says. The effects happen over time.
After the analysis, the Consumer Reports scientists conclude that:
- 15 of the foods would pose “potential health risks” if a child ate one serving or less every day.
- Snacks and products with rice or sweet potatoes were more likely than other foods to have high levels of the heavy metals. White rice had lower levels than brown.
- Organic foods were as likely as nonorganic to have high levels of heavy metals.
Here are the 15 foods that Consumer Reports recommends limiting to less than a serving a day:
- Earth’s Best Organic Chicken & Brown Rice
- Earth’s Best Turkey, Red Beans and Brown Rice
- Gerber Chicken &Rice
- Gerber Turkey & Rice
- Sprout Organic Baby Food Garden Vegetables Brown Rice with Turkey
- Gerber Lil’ Meals White Turkey Stew with Rice & Vegetables
- Gerber Carrot, Pear & Blackberry
- Gerber Carrots Peas & Corn with Lil’ Bits
- Plum Organics Just Sweet Potato Organic Baby Food
- Beech-Nut Classics Sweet Potatoes
- Earth’s Best Organic Sweet Potatoes, 1st Stage
- Earth’s Best Organic Whole Grain Rice Cereal
- Earth’s Best Organic Sunny Days Snack Bars, Strawberry
- Happy Bab Organics Superfood Puffs, Apple & Broccoli
- Happy Baby Organics Superfood Puffs, Purple Carrot & Blueberry
Advice for Parents
The message, Dickerson says, is not to be alarmed but to think “balance, balance, balance” when it comes to a child’s diet.
“If you happen to be giving them a lot of rice-based products, mix in oats or wheat. The idea is balance, not overemphasizing any one particular grain or food.”
“Back off on snack foods,” as most of those products contain rice, he says.
Who’s Watching the Levels?
“There exists no regulatory guidance on what levels are acceptable,” Dickerson says. But the FDA is working on it.
“In 2016, the FDA did propose limiting inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal to 100 parts per billion,” the report notes.
And earlier, in 2013, it proposed limiting inorganic arsenic in apple juice to 10 ppb, which is the federal standard for arsenic in drinking water.
Dickerson says Consumer Reports has been discussing the need for more regulation with the FDA. The agency says it is hoping to finalize the new guidelines by the end of 2018.
Food Makers’ Response
Consumer Reports officials have also had discussions with baby food makers.
Among the actions the experts at Consumer Reports recommend, Dickerson says, are sourcing the raw food from growers to be sure it has low levels of heavy metals and ensuring the manufacturing process does not introduce contaminants (like from metal used in the machinery).
Most companies said they do their own testing and are in favor of the government setting limits, according to the report.
Beech-Nut, a major baby food maker, said in a statement that it focuses on safety and quality of its infant and toddler foods.
“We have high standards and rigorous testing protocols. We established heavy metal testing standards 35 years ago, and we continuously review and strengthen them wherever possible.”
The company says it already follows Consumer Reports’ recommendations about manufacturers “sourcing produce from areas less likely to be contaminated, and ensuring water and equipment used for manufacturing do not contribute to contamination.”
The company says it buys its rice from California, which, it says, has the lowest levels of arsenic of any rice-growing region.
“We test every delivery of fruits, vegetables, rice and other ingredients for up to 255 contaminants to confirm that every shipment meets our strict quality standards. If the ingredients don’t meet our standards, we reject them.”
Beech-Nut also says its facilities meet “all regulatory standards for water quality, food preparation and packaging. We have conducted testing on our facility and have found no evidence of any contaminants entering our products during the production process.”
In a statement, industry giant Gerber says that it ”prides itself on our dedication to nutritious, high-quality and safe food. All of our foods meet our safety and quality standards, which are among the strictest in the world.
Our rigorous standards are developed by evaluating the latest food safety guidance – from sources like the Food and Drug Administration, Environmental Protection Agency, and international health authorities.”
The company, in its statement, also says it “partners with our farmers and our ingredient and packaging suppliers to control, reduce and limit contaminants in all our foods.”
James Dickerson, PhD, chief scientific officer, Consumer Reports.
Consumer Reports: “Heavy Metals in Baby Food: What You Need to Know.”
Cathy Dunn, spokeswoman, Gerber.
David Saltz, spokesman, Beech-Nut Nutrition Company.
Steven P. Shelov, MD, MS, FAAP, Editor and Chief, and Tanya Remer Altmann, MD, FAAP, Associate Medical Editor, “The Complete and Authoritative Guide for Caring for Your Baby and Young Child, Birth to Age 5.” Sandra G.Hassink, MD, FAAP, Getting Started With Solid Foods.