Toxic Heavy Metals And Baby Food: 8 Things Every Parent Should Know

A recent congressional report from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform found that many baby foods contain high levels of toxic metals, including arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium. These metals appear in baby foods from at least seven brands, in levels much higher than the government allows in bottled water. And exposure to these metals could lead to brain damage. Here’s what parents need to know about toxic metals in baby food, including how to reduce baby’s exposure to these metals.

 

1. Toxic metals have been found in 7 major brands of baby food, including organic brands.

The 2021 report found that several brands of baby food contain high levels of arsenic, lead, and cadmium, including:

  • Beech-Nut
  • Earth’s Best Organic
  • Gerber
  • Plum Organics (made by Campbell)
  • Walmart/Parent’s Choice
  • Sprout Organic Foods

These are some of the biggest baby food manufacturers in the United States.

Some of the companies responded to the investigators’ requests for information about how they test for toxic metals, and how much of these metals they’ve found. But other companies (Walmart, Campbell/Plum Organics and Sprout) didn’t respond.

One of the baby food brands was confirmed to contain mercury as well---but the other brands listed don’t test for mercury, raising the concern that it may be even more common in baby foods. 

2. Toxic metals can cause brain damage in babies, and some can cause cancer. 

Arsenic, lead, mercury, and cadmium have neurotoxic effects. This means that they can cause brain damage that can’t be reversed, even if they’re only consumed in small amounts.

Babies are especially vulnerable to these metals’ effects. Exposure to these metals can hinder babies’ brain development and long-term brain function, lead to behavioral impairments, and sometimes lead to death. 

Arsenic is also a carcinogen---it increases baby’s risk of cancer when they are exposed.


3. The 2021 report isn’t the first to draw attention to the toxic metal problem.

The 2021 congressional report was launched after a 2019 study by Healthy Babies, Bright Futures found that over 9 in 10 commercial baby foods (95%, or 159 of the 168 baby foods they tested) contained metals that can negatively affect baby’s brain development. That report also found that “87% of foods tested contained more than one toxic heavy metal.”


4. The government doesn’t regulate the amounts of toxic metals in most baby food.

The government closely regulates the amounts of arsenic, lead, and cadmium in bottled water. But as far as baby foods are concerned, the government only regulates the amount of arsenic in baby rice cereal. It currently doesn’t set limits for any toxic metals in any other baby food. It also doesn't mark baby foods that have high levels of toxic metals.

And even the maximum amount of arsenic allowed in rice cereal (100 parts per billion) has been criticized as too high to protect babies, including by the writers of the 2021 congressional report. 

 

5. Sometimes, toxic metals show up naturally in grains and vegetables.

Some vegetables, like carrots and sweet potatoes, naturally have high levels of lead and cadmium, absorbed from the soil. And rice easily absorbs large amounts of arsenic from the soil. Other plants sometimes absorb the toxic metals as well, but in much smaller amounts. 

But sometimes, baby food manufacturers end up increasing the amounts of toxic heavy metals in baby foods during the manufacturing process, like when they add vitamins and minerals that are tainted with these metals. 

6.  To reduce baby’s exposure to toxic metals, don’t feed baby rice cereal.

It’s almost impossible to completely avoid heavy metals, as many foods absorb them from the ground in very small amounts. But there are ways to sharply limit baby’s exposure to them.

How to minimize baby's exposure to toxic metals?

First, stay away from baby rice cereal and other baby foods made with rice flour, as rice products contain much more arsenic than other grains. Feed baby oats, barley, wheat, buckwheat, and/or quinoa instead, as these grains are very low in arsenic. And prioritize fruits and vegetables as baby’s first foods instead.

Read more on baby rice cereal and arsenic.

7. Focus on feeding a variety of foods to reduce heavy metal exposure.

Prioritize buying and feeding a variety of unprocessed fruits and vegetables, and homemade purees, over commercial baby foods. 

(Many commercial baby foods also contain added sugar that babies don’t need, in addition to the high levels of heavy metals---another reason to steer clear.)

Also, feed a variety of fruits and vegetables rather than eliminating carrots and sweet potatoes outright. Carrots and sweet potatoes have plenty of nutritional benefits for baby, even though their lead and cadmium levels tend to be higher. 

Feeding a variety of fruits and vegetables helps limit exposure to heavy metals from foods where they are most common. And as an added benefit, feeding a diverse, healthy diet helps set babies up to choose and enjoy many healthy foods throughout their lives.


Learn more about the how to teach good eating habits from Good Morning America:

8. Don’t beat yourself up if you’ve fed your baby purees from the brands mentioned. 

Fed is best---so don’t worry if you’ve already fed your baby a lot of commercial baby foods. It’s very difficult to remove all heavy metals from foods (as they are often absorbed from soil). Instead, focus on minimizing exposure to foods that are identified as high in these metals. 

The most important things you can do from here on out are to avoid rice and introduce a variety of foods.

In fact, if you already have many jars of commercial baby food from the brands mentioned, don’t feel like you have to throw them out. Instead, use the jars gradually as you also feed baby diverse types of unprocessed foods. 


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These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. Products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.  

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