Upset by reports that up to 95% of baby food contains one or more toxic heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury?
Here’s the good news: There are actions you can take to reduce your infant’s exposure to these toxic metals, and in doing so, improve your own health and that of your entire family.
“There is definitely something we can all do about it,” said Jane Houlihan, the national director of science and health for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a coalition of advocates committed to reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.
“(There) are actions that the Food and Drug Administration, baby food companies and parents can take,” Houlihan said. “And we really need all three. We need the FDA to speed up developing guidelines on safety standards for these toxic metals. Companies can be acting now to get metals out of foods. And there are simple steps that parents can take.”
Developing brains at highest risk
Even in the trace amounts found in food, toxic metals can erode a child’s IQ, cause developmental and behavior problems, and impact kidneys and liver, according to the Food and Drug Administration.
Young children, especially babies, are at highest risk says the FDA, because their brains and organs aren’t fully developed, their intestinal absorption of toxic elements is higher and their food intake to body weight is greater.
Prior studies by the FDA and others have found concerning levels of toxic metals in baby foods. A recent analysis by Healthy Babies Bright Futures tested 168 different baby foods from 61 different manufacturers.
They found 95% of the baby foods contained lead, 73% contained arsenic, 75% contained cadmium and 32% contained mercury. One fourth of the foods contained all four heavy metals.
“This is cause for concern but not alarm,” Houlihan said. “There’s not any one brand or a single container of food we tested that is cause for panic in any way.
“These are fairly low levels,” she continued. “The problem is that these exposures add up from meal to meal and day to day, and it’s that cumulative impact that’s significant.”
Food variety is key
One of the reasons exposures add up dangerously for infants is the lack of variety in their diet.
Take 4- to 6-month-olds for example. Many parents still follow old, outdated guidelines on the best first foods, or believe they need to introduce one food at a time, waiting a few days to see if an allergy will occur.
There’s no recommendations anymore on what you have to start with, stressed pediatrician Dr. Tanya Altmann, author of “What to Feed Your Baby.”
“There’s not a certain color order,” Altmann said. “You don’t have to wait days in between introducing new foods. You don’t have to hold off on any allergenic foods, unless there is an existing allergy in the family.
“The latest guidelines are: Feed your baby a variety of healthy foods, including all of the allergenic foods early and often in a consistency the baby can manage,” she said. “You don’t have to avoid anything other than raw honey, milk or choking hazards.”
Milk is not advised as a drink for infants because it cannot be metabolized until around the age of one. But it is fine as an addition to mashed potatoes or other foods during the first year, Altmann said. After age one, milk and water are the go-to drinks for children, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Adding variety at the beginning, say experts, will also help children be less picky in their food selections as they grow. That’s good news, considering kiddie staples such as macaroni and cheese showed up in the Healthy Babies list of most neurotoxic foods.
The Healthy Babies report identified the foods containing the most heavy metal contaminates that parents should significantly reduce in their infant and child’s diet.
At the top of the list: rice cereal, rice-based puffs, rice-based snacks and rice rusks or teething biscuits.
Rice is at the top of the list because it has extremely high concentrations of inorganic arsenic. Arsenic is a natural element found in soil, water and air. Because rice is grown submersed in water, it is especially good at absorbing inorganic arsenic, the most toxic form.
Because the milling process used to create white rice removes the outer layers, where much of the arsenic concentrates, white rice has less arsenic than brown and wild rice.
Still, in the Healthy Babies analysis, four of seven rice cereals tested contained the most toxic form of arsenic in levels higher than the FDA’s proposed action level of 100 parts per billion (ppb).
“Rice cereal has six times more arsenic than other types of cereal, like oatmeal and multi-grain,” Houlihan said.
“I have not been recommending rice cereal as a first food for many years, because I prefer babies eat whole grains with more nutrition,” Altmann said. “I recommend oatmeal and other whole grain cereals but not plain except for the first day or so. I suggest adding almond butter and peanut butter to the oatmeal for extra nutrition.”
But you don’t have to do cereal as a first food at all, she added.
“You could do avocado and vegetables and then go straight to salmon and chicken and even meat, beans or lentils, as long as you puree it,” Altmann said.
Choose snacks carefully
Rice teething rusks and other teething biscuits, Altmann said, are more like snacks which have no nutrition and are not good choices to soothe a baby’s pain.
“It’s essentially it’s like giving your baby a cookie,” she said. “A cold piece of melon, a frozen banana, a peeled cucumber are better choices if you watch closely for choking. But I really prefer a teething ring or soft wet cloth, again with watching for choking.”
“That will reduce levels of arsenic as well as lead and cadmium that we’ve found in those teething foods,” Houlihan said.
There are also better choices for toddler snacks than rice puffs or even the ubitiquous round cereal so frequently given as a finger food, she added, which also showed up on the Healthy Babies neurotoxic list.
“We’re recommending other snacks like apples and bananas, cheese, grapes, peaches and yogurt,” Houlihan said.
Apple, grape and other juices are a significant source of heavy metals for children, not because the levels are as high as rice products, Houlihan said, but because children drink so much juice.
“When you do the math, which we did on the impact on IQ from these foods, juices are way up at the top,” Houlihan said. “And that’s because children consume so much – 80% of families serve juice to their toddlers and three quarters of those serve it daily.”
By replacing juice with tap water, she said, a parent can reduce a child’s exposure to toxic metals by 68%. But the report does not recommend bottled water: “Bottled water is no safer than filtered tap water and generates plastic waste that is easily avoided by choosing tap water.”
Juice should be reduced for other reasons than toxic metals,say experts.
“Even 100% fruit juice offers no nutritional benefits over whole fruit,” said a consensus statement published in September by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Heart Association joined the and the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry.
That’s because the natural sugars in juice contribute to weight gain and dental decay as much as other sugars, say pediatricians. While juice does contain some vitamins and a bit of calcium, the overall lack of protein and fiber make it a poor choice for a healthy drink.
Babies under six months only need breast milk and formula. As for juice, the group says it’s best to avoid juice for children under 1.
The drinks of choice for a child’s second year of life should be water and whole milk, the groups advises. “A small amount of juice is OK,” the recommendations say, “but make sure it’s 100% fruit juice to avoid added sugar. Better yet, serve small pieces of real fruit, which are even healthier.”
Carrots and sweet potatoes are on list of foods most contaminated, according to the Healthy Babies report. By replacing those with a variety of vegetables, a parent can reduce their baby’s risk by 73%, the analysis found.
But instead of eliminating carrots and sweet potatoes, which are excellent sources of key vitamins and minerals, Houlihan suggests parents serve them less frequently and take extra care to peel them carefully.
“Peeling definitely helps, and if you peel even a little more deeply, you can remove more of the heavy metals,” she said.
Another tip: When cooking rice for the entire family, add extra water, just as you would for pasta, said Houlihan. Then pour it off before serving.
“That can reduce arsenic levels by up to 60%, according to FDA studies,” she said. “That’s especially important for families who serve rice often, and many do serve it daily.”
What won’t help
Many people believe that going organic is a fix to much of the chemical contamination of our food supply. It does help with some exposures, experts say, but not with heavy metals.
“Going organic does reduce pesticide exposures, which is a big benefit, but it doesn’t do much when it comes to heavy metals,” Houlihan said. “Heavy metals are found in organic foods, they are found in conventional foods. These are ubiquitous, toxic chemicals in the food supply.”
That means you also can’t get rid of heavy metals by switching to homemade purees for your baby.
“Heavy metals are so common in the environment that crops pick them up in fields. So they are in the foods you would buy in the produce section of your grocery store,” Houlihan said.
That doesn’t mean homemade baby food isn’t an excellent way to control pesticides and other contaminants, said Altmann, as long as you prepare a variety of foods. When you do, she added, be sure to cool the foods in glass containers before freezing them.
“I usually advise minimizing the plastic that you use,” Altmann said, especially when it comes to hot or heated food. That’s when we get a little more concerned about chemicals from plastic leaching into the baby’s food.
“What I recommend is to steam the vegetables, puree them, and cool them in small glass containers, then freeze. Then you can kind of pop them out and put them into bigger containers if you like.”
More to be done
Baby food manufacturers have joined with Healthy Babies, the Environmental Defense Fund and other advocacy groups to form the Baby Food Council, which they say has a mission to implement changes that can lessen exposure to heavy metals in food. Take rice, for example, the leading culprit in arsenic exposure because it is grown in water.
“Farmers can change irrigation methods for rice,” Houlihan explained. “If they change the water cycle, they can reduce the amounts of arsenic that the rice picks up.”
Other changes that can occur include growing crops in cleaner fields that have lower levels of heavy metals.
“It may vary regionally, but also field to field,” Houlihan said. “Growers can test the soil and water and understand what their levels are, and try to shift growing to cleaner areas. Companies can set standards for their suppliers, encouraging them to do that.”
Companies can also voluntarily change the way food is processed and manufactured.
“Like parents, if a manufacturer more deeply peels carrots and sweet potatoes in the processing plant they can remove more of the heavy metals,” Houlihan said. “And companies can do all that, now, voluntarily.”
Some voluntary changes by manufacturers have already helped. A change in manufacturing guidelines has lowered the level of arsenic in fruit juice over the last 10 years by 63%.
“And if change happens for baby food, it’s likely that it will filter down and impact the foods all of us are eating, including pregnant women,” Houlihan said. “It’s also important to reduce heavy metal exposures while a baby is developing in the womb.”
Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the name of Healthy Babies Bright Futures on several references.