Child & Teen Health
Heavy metals in baby food? What parents should know and do
If there is anything you can trust to be safe, it should be baby food, right?
Well… maybe not.
A report from the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform says that commercial baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.
Which baby food companies are involved?
The report was based on information from just four companies that make baby food: Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain, and Gerber. Arsenic, lead, and cadmium were found in baby foods from all of the companies; mercury was found in the food from the only company that tested for it (Nurture).
Of note, three other companies (Walmart, Sprout, and Campbell’s Soup) were asked to provide the same information about their baby food products, and did not.
And that is part of the problem: this is just one report, with limited information. It’s hard to know exactly what it means about commercial baby foods in general, but it’s a report that we need to take seriously, because all four of these heavy metals can affect the developing brain. And when you harm the brain as it develops, the damage can be permanent.
Do organic baby foods contain heavy metals?
It’s important to note that organic baby foods aren’t necessarily better, in no small part because many of them contain brown rice. Many rice plants naturally contain arsenic, and brown rice has more than white rice. Over the past few years we have come to understand the problem of arsenic in rice, and both the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the FDA recommend limiting rice intake for babies.
What steps can parents take to be sure baby foods are safe and healthy?
The FDA is working on doing better monitoring and regulation of heavy metals in commercial baby foods. In the meantime, it’s nearly impossible to know which are completely safe and which aren’t. Babies don’t need solid foods until 6 months of age. At that time it’s perfectly fine to give them soft table foods instead of baby foods. You can also make your own baby food, using steamed or naturally soft foods and a blender. (Storage tip: you can pour a homemade puree into an ice cube tray and freeze it, and then just grab the cubes you need each time.)
The American Academy of Pediatrics has suggestions for families to help decrease their children’s exposure to heavy metals in their food and drink:
- Give your child a wide variety of different foods (the more natural colors, the better).
- Vary the grains. As mentioned above, it’s best to limit rice and rice products (check labels — rice is in a lot of foods marketed for babies, like “puffs”). Try barley, oats, and other grains. When cooking rice, it’s best to cook it in extra water and drain that water off, and to use white basmati and sushi rice, which have less arsenic.
- Check your water. Old pipes can contain lead, which can leach into drinking water.
- Avoid fruit juices. Not only can they increase the risk of cavities and obesity, but many commercial juices also contain heavy metals.
- Make healthy fish choices. Fish contains nutrients that are very healthy for the developing brain, but some fish can contain unhealthy amounts of mercury. Stay clear of big, predatory, long-living fish like swordfish, shark, or albacore tuna; it’s better to choose fish like cod, light tuna, salmon, or pollock.
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About the Author
Claire McCarthy, MD, Senior Faculty Editor, Harvard Health Publishing
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