Parents and Kids

Is Baby Food Safe?

Our expert tells parents how to avoid toxic metals

Feb. 24, 2021 3   min read

Toxins in Baby Food Graphic

A recent congressional report has parents reeling after finding arsenic, lead and other toxic metals in several well-known brands of baby food. Experts say not to panic – but do make some changes for the future.

“Parents are right to be concerned,” said Kevin Klossner, MD, a pediatrician at Rochester Regional Health’s Penn Fair Pediatrics.

“The government should step in and help better regulate both the producers of baby food and the companies responsible for polluting our soil,” he added. “But in the meantime, there’s plenty that parents can do to keep their families safe.”

What did the report find?

Congress tasked a subcommittee to investigate claims of high levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury in baby foods. That subcommittee asked seven baby food manufacturers to provide information on the heavy metals in their ingredients (spices, additives and vitamins) and in their finished products.

The Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency only allow a certain amount of each of these metals in bottled water. When the subcommittee compared those levels to levels found in baby food, it found baby food to contain “up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to 5 times the mercury level.”

The report also found that most of the companies failed to regularly test their finished products, and when companies did detect high levels of metals, products were still allowed to be sold on store shelves. Plus, organic products were just as likely to have high levels.

“That makes sense,” Klossner said. “These heavy metals aren’t from pesticides. They are from contaminated soil.”

How dangerous are these metals?

Metals like these are found naturally in the earth’s crust, but the metals in food most often come from contaminated soil or water – and sometimes from the manufacturing and packaging process.

“Unfortunately, children are especially at risk because we know that long-term exposure to these metals can lower IQ and create behavior problems,” Klossner said. “But the key is long-term exposure.”

Klossner says parents should consider their child’s environment too. Some things to monitor include:

  • If you live in an older home, let the water run for 10 to 15 seconds so any water that has been sitting in lead pipes has a chance to clear out.
  • Check for peeling paint around your home.
  • Wash all fruits and vegetables before preparing.
  • Avoid third-hand smoke on furniture, clothing and lingering in the air. It contains cadmium and lead as well.

What is safe to feed my baby?

Battle long-term exposure by not relying too heavily on any one vegetable or grain, Klossner said. “The best, and safest, approach is to diversify what you’re offering your child.”

The subcommittee’s report shows some foods are riskier than others, including rice cereal, sweet potatoes, juices and sweet snack puffs. So, Klossner recommends:

  • Switch out rice cereal for oatmeal or barley. Rice – and in particular brown rice – absorbs metals easily, so stay away from rice milk and brown rice syrup.
  • Read labels. Even baby food mixtures like kale and pears often have sweet potatoes as an added ingredient.
  • Avoid juice. Your child misses out on the fiber from the fruit and instead gets an unhealthy amount of sugar.
  • Pay attention to fish choices. In general, larger and older fish like sharks and swordfish have more heavy metal contamination. However, light tuna, salmon and cod are good choices.
  • Think twice about spices from other countries. Some contain lead.

“Breastfeeding, if possible, and making your own baby food can also help,” Klossner said. “But the most important thing is to offer a healthy and dynamic diet. Introducing new foods will help make sure your baby doesn’t have long-term exposure to dangerous metals.”

NEXT STEPS Pediatric Care You Can Trust

The Department of Pediatrics at Rochester Regional Health provides a broad range of diagnostic and treatment services for children from birth through 21 years of age. Much of the clinical and research activities of the department center on community pediatrics.

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