As parents, we do our best to protect our children and make informed decisions about all aspects of their care, including nutrition.
Recently, I was shocked to read major commercial brands of baby food were linked with testing positive for lead and other heavy metals.
I was even more shocked to see this wasn’t the first time concerns about heavy metal in baby foods had been published.
Lead In Baby Food? What You Need To Know
As a parent, I was furious about this! Why? Because lead exposure – even at very low levels – can have serious consequences.
As a parent educator, however, I needed to jump in and determine the realistic risk. Sometimes we really need to sound the alarm bells; sometimes we just need to be more conscious of our choices.
In this case, it seems like the latter in some ways, but overall heavy metal exposure during childhood is an extremely important topic. We can and need to do better for our babies.
What Harmful Things Were Found In Baby Food?
Researchers from the Environmental Defense Fund found detectable levels of lead in baby food samples taken over a period of about ten years.
They found detectable levels of lead in 20% of 2,164 baby food samples.
More recently, an organisation called the Clean Label Project found baby food and formula containing lead, arsenic, BPA, and other heavy metals.
Of about 530 baby food and formula samples they tested:
- 65% tested positive for arsenic
- 80% of the baby formula tested positive for arsenic
- 36% had lead
- 58% had cadmium
- 10% had acrylamide
- Of items labelled ‘BPA free’, 60% tested positive for bisphenol A.
How Can Harmful Things End Up In Baby Food?
First and foremost, it’s important to note most of these things are simply present in the environment. Unfortunately, many of these substances are the result of industrialisation. We’re paying for the rise in industrialisation that happened generations ago, prior to environmental regulations.
Lead, arsenic, and other substances aren’t being added to baby food. They are sometimes present in soil and water. Although we now have environmental regulations in many places, it isn’t always easy to eliminate harmful metals already present.
These substances are also found in other foods, not only baby food. However, what is of most concern is we’re seeing a higher percentage of contamination in baby food, compared with food not marketed to babies.
Tom Neltner, the Environmental Defense Fund’s chemicals policy director, who has spent two decades researching and working to reduce lead exposures found:
- 89% of baby grape juice tested positive for lead compared with 68% of regular grape juice
- 55% of baby apple juice compared with 25% of regular apple juice
- 44% of baby carrots compared with just 14% of regular carrots
According to the FDA, lead makes its way into food via contaminated soil. However, Neltner suspects food processing plays a role.
On why lead is found at a higher rate in baby food, Neltner said, “I can’t explain it, other than I assume baby food is processed more”.
Why Are Lead And Other Heavy Metals Of Concern?
Paediatrician and toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Jennifer Lowry, who is not affiliated with the research, told USA Today these chemicals can affect fine motor skills and cognition.
According to the FDA, there is no safe amount of lead exposure. Unfortunately, some level of exposure can occur, and the FDA has determined levels that require monitoring and intervention.
What’s most worrying, is blood lead levels as low as 5-10 are associated with lowering the IQ by 5-7 points.
“The levels we found were relatively low, but when you add them up — with all the foods children eat … it's significant”, Neltner said.
According to the World Health Organization, arsenic exposure is associated with developmental defects, neurotoxicity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and even cancer.
It’s important to remember we can’t simply remove 100% of these contaminants from our food.
The associated risks aren’t meant to scare, but rather to show the need for continued research and regulations, and to make sure we do our best to reduce exposure.
Also remember, an increased risk is not a guarantee; neither does it mean something is likely.
Even so, continued exposure beginning in infancy should be of concern to consumers. We shouldn’t avoid plant-based foods, as they are vital for nutrition, but we can make informed choices to reduce risk of exposure.
FDA spokesperson Peter Cassell said, “It is important for consumers to understand that some contaminants, such as heavy metals like lead or arsenic, are in the environment and cannot simply be removed from food”.
The biggest concern is the reason why foods marketed to infants are the most contaminated?
What Can I Do As A Parent To Reduce My Child’s Exposure?
Lead exposure from food is very worrying! However, other environmental concerns are more likely to cause high level or chronic exposure.
Making informed decisions about food, and reducing your children’s environmental exposure, are important ways to reduce the cumulative risk.
Here are some things to know and things to do to reduce your children’s environmental lead exposure risk:
- Ask your children’s doctor if they’re at risk, and whether they should receive a routine lead screening between 9 and 12 months (recommended in the US).
- If you live in a home built before the 1970s, be aware of and look for lead paint exposure.
- If you’re doing renovations in a home built before the 1970s, be sure your contractors are properly trained to handle lead paint, pipes, etc.
- Know your water supply. Even if your municipal or well water is safe, be sure your home’s plumbing isn’t exposing you to lead.
- Soil can contain lead, especially following renovations (including neighbouring properties), or if you live near a current or past industrial property. Wash children’s hands when they come in after playing outdoors. Don’t wear shoes inside the home.
- Avoid cheap, painted imported toys, which could have lead paint on them.
- If you or your children consume any supplements, make sure you know they are from a safe source, especially if they are imported.
- Be aware of the food preparation, storing and serving items you are using. Some materials can be high in lead, including some stainless steel water bottles.
Although direct environmental exposure is more likely to cause dangerous exposure to lead or other heavy metals, it’s also important to make informed decisions about your child’s nutrition.
What Nutrition Choices Should I Make To Protect My Children?
Quite simply, plant based foods will be at some risk for potential contamination; that’s just how the industrialised world is.
However, it is vital to remember plant based foods – even root vegetables, which are at greatest risk of contamination – are necessary for proper nutrition.
In most cases, they are found to have very low levels. There’s always concern about exposure, but it’s about benefit versus risk, and the benefit of plant foods for nutrition is significant.
Paediatrician at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Dr. Aparna Bole, who was not involved with the report, told Kaiser Health News (KHN):
“In many American communities, the most significant route of lead exposure is from paint and soil. Avoiding all sources of exposure of lead poisoning is incredibly important … but the last thing I would want is for a parent to restrict their child’s diet or limit their intake of healthy food groups”.
Even so, there are dietary choices that reduce the cumulative risk of lead and heavy metal exposure in food. You can:
- Choose diets high in iron, calcium and vitamin C; they protect against the absorption of lead.
- Limit or completely avoid fruit juice (especially in children under 1 year old).
- Consider skipping baby foods and practising baby led weaning with unprocessed whole foods. Although there’s no known link between processing baby food and an increase in contamination, the statistics show commercial baby food to have a higher rate of contamination.
- Limit processed rice products like infant rice cereal, rice based teething biscuits, and rice based puffs.
- Breastfeed your baby and consider human donor milk if you’re unable to breastfeed exclusively.
- Be thorough in researching the formula brand you choose, if you cannot give breast milk.
Who Is Responsible For This?
Nothing is more frustrating than thinking you’re making healthy nutrition choices for your child, only to learn there’s risk involved simply in feeding your baby.
As the parent of an infant exposed to enough lead to have significantly elevated blood levels and resulting anemia, I must admit the first thing I said when I saw the information from the Clean Label Project was, “What the [expletive]? This is ridiculous!”
And I was even more upset after stumbling upon the Environmental Defense Fund report which had come out months before. How did I miss it? Why wasn’t the information plastered everywhere?
Once the anger settled and I jumped in, I realised the research was geared towards the food industry.
Jennifer Lowry, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health said, “I think the onus is really on FDA and industry to change their standards to reflect what we know, that there is no safe lead level”.
When we know better, we need to do better. Back in the 1970s, it wasn’t uncommon for a child to have a lead level of 15. Now we know there’s no safe level, and even a level of 5 poses a cognitive risk.
As parents and consumers, we can use this information to help us make informed decisions about our child’s nutrition.
This isn’t the first time baby food has been cause for concern, in terms of health risks. In this case, however, all the brands tested have released statements to say they are currently within FDA guidelines.
This isn’t a question of intent, as with misleading advertising, but we can still use the information to make wiser choices about the products we purchase and the food we serve, and to be aware of environmental factors.