Everything You Need to Know About Heavy Metals and Contaminants in Baby Food
New report warns of lead, arsenic, and other toxins in products for babies and toddlers. These contaminants may impact your little one’s brain development—and now the FDA is stepping in. Here’s what parents can do to combat the issue.
By Sally Kuzemchak, M.S., R.D.
Updated October 15, 2021
Some of America’s biggest manufacturers of baby food have not been adequately testing and removing products with dangerous levels of heavy metals, according to a new U.S. Congressional report. This is all part of an ongoing battle to make baby food safe.
The new report says Gerber and Beech-Nut didn’t properly test and remove these products, while Sprout Foods Inc., Walmart’s Parent’s Choice, and Plum Organics were relaxed in their efforts.
Arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury were found in rice cereals, sweet potato puree, juices, and sweet snack puffs, according to a previous report from the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Committee on Oversight. At the time, the companies—Nurture (sells Happy Family Organics and HappyBABY products), Beech-Nut, Hain (Earth’s Best Organic), and Gerber—agreed to the subcommittee’s previous request for investigation. The subcommittee also reached out to Walmart, Campbell, and Sprout Organic Foods, which did not allow the investigation. Those companies later began cooperating.
About a week later, the law firm Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman said it started accepting toxic baby food lawsuit cases for parents who bought food from any of the brands and have children with autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Both autism and ADHD have been associated with toxic metals.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released a statement on the findings in February, saying it “has been actively working on this issue using a risk-based approach to prioritize and target the agency’s efforts. Consumers should know that FDA scientists routinely monitor levels of toxic elements in baby foods, along with other foods consumed in the country’s diet, through the Total Diet Study. Further, the FDA also monitors baby food under the FDA’s compliance program for Toxic Elements in Food and Foodware, and Radionuclides in Food and through targeted sampling assignments.”
Two months later and the FDA is now taking an even stronger approach, with plans to propose limits on arsenic, lead and mercury in baby food. “We recognize that Americans want zero toxic elements in the foods eaten by their babies and young children. In reality, because these elements occur in our air, water and soil, there are limits to how low these levels can be,” the agency stated. “The FDA’s goal, therefore, is to reduce the levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury in these foods to the greatest extent possible.” Final rulings on permissible limits are expected by April 2024.
But this isn’t the first time this information has made headlines. In 2017, a nonprofit organization called Clean Label Project released findings from a study showing contaminants such as arsenic, lead, and mercury in leading brands of infant formula and baby foods. And Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) confirmed some of those scary discoveries in a 2019 investigation.
HBBF tested 168 popular baby foods in America, from brands like Gerber, Earth’s Best, Beech-Nut, and more. The team tested these products for cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic, according to their article about the topic. Here’s a breakdown of the results:
95 percent of containers contained toxic heavy metals (arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury).
One-fourth of containers contained all of these toxic metals.
Heavy metal contamination was highest in products containing rice, juice, and sweet potato.
88 percent of foods tested “lack any federal standards or guidance on maximum safe levels of toxic heavy metals like arsenic and lead,” according to the HBBF findings.
The Clean Label Project released similar results in their 2017 food study. The organization purchased 500 infant formulas, baby foods, baby cereals, pouches, and toddler drinks and snacks from 60 different brands and had them tested at a third-party lab for more than 130 contaminants, including heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides, and BPA.
Among their findings:
About 65 percent of baby food products contained some arsenic.
36 percent of baby food samples had detectable levels of lead.
60 percent of the products labeled “BPA Free” tested positive for BPA.
Baby food labeled “certified organic” had higher levels of arsenic than conventional (but lower levels of pesticide residues).
Using the findings, the Clean Label Project assigned star ratings to each product tested (one star for the worst in terms of contaminants, five stars for the best) and published the lists on their website. Their highest-rated products are a mix of both organic brands and conventional.
The Effect of Chemicals in Baby Food
The heavy metals tested in these studies—cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic—are harmful in any amount. Lead is toxic to children’s brains, and no amount has been deemed safe. Arsenic and mercury are also neurotoxins. Infants and young children are particularly sensitive these contaminants, since their brains and organ systems aren’t fully developed.
According to Consumer Reports, “Exposure to even small amounts of these heavy metals at an early age may increase the risk of several health problems, especially lower IQ and behavior problems, and have been linked to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Unfortunately, these effects are long-lasting and irreversible, as the contaminants have been linked to “bladder, lung, and skin cancer; cognitive and reproductive problems; and type 2 diabetes, among other conditions” when consumed over a long period of time, adds Consumer Reports.
What Parents Can Do
After the HBBF findings were released, Senator Chuck Schumer called on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to take action, stating that consumers should “rightfully expect” baby food to be safe and regulated. The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy is also calling on the FDA. “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,” subcommittee Chair Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) told the Washington Post.
It’s important to note that (unfortunately) these contaminants exist in the environment—so the idea that you could eat a contaminant-free diet or buy products devoid of any contaminant is just not feasible, says Jennifer Lowry, M.D., Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health and Chief of Medical Toxicology at Children’s Mercy Kansas City. Foods take up metals like lead and arsenic from the soil and water and can also become contaminated during storage, processing, or transport. (Making your own baby food doesn’t mean you’re in the clear, since even fresh produce can have these contaminants too.)
But these findings may spur manufacturers to do more testing and change practices to get levels down. “We hope this is a wake-up call for brands and parents,” says Jackie Bowen, executive director of Clean Label Project. They encourage consumers to call their favorite brands to ask if they test their products (and what they test them for). They also call on manufacturers to set stricter quality standards and better testing.
In fact, the Healthy Babies Bright Futures investigation found that baby food companies are already making changes. For example, fruit juice contains 63 percent lower levels of arsenic now than 10 years ago—partly because of a change in manufacturing guidelines. More action is needed, though, since the problem isn’t solved.
To help combat heavy metal consumption, parents can choose safer alternatives to concerning baby foods. For example, they can exchange rice puffs for rice-free snacks, fruit juice for tap water, rice cereal for oatmeal or barley, and teething biscuits for frozen banana or chilled cucumber, recommends HBBF. And you should always do your research and reach out to companies if you have questions.