Some Baby Foods Contain High Levels of Toxic Heavy Metals, Report Finds

As a parent, you only want the very best for your child, especially when it comes to the foods she eats. So it’s understandable that you may be concerned about a new congressional report finding that ingredients in a number of baby food products contain elevated levels of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.

Citing data from four major baby food companies — Beech-Nut, Gerber, Nurture (which makes Happy Family Organic and HappyBABY products) and Hain (producer of Earth’s Baby Organics) — the report by the U.S. Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy calls for stronger federal regulations and oversight when it comes to baby food products and their manufacturers.

But are these latest findings, which are similar to those of previous baby food ingredients studies, really something to worry about? Here’s what pediatricians have to say to parents about baby food purées and other snacks.

Should parents be worried about metals in the baby food they buy? 

The headlines sound scary, but try not to worry, pediatricians say. While these findings do highlight the need for some stricter regulations in the industry, most store-bought baby food is still perfectly safe and healthy.

“The key is really not to panic, as this is really nothing new,” says Lauren Crosby, M.D., F.A.A.P, a pediatrician in Beverly Hills, California, and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board. “These are chemicals that are found naturally occurring in our environment, so it’s impossible to completely avoid them. The levels are still low levels.”

In other words, while it is disconcerting to imagine arsenic in your little one’s purée, because these metals are naturally present in the food supply (such as in water and soil), your child would be exposed even if you exclusively served her homemade or all-organic fare.

“A root vegetable, like a sweet potato, [grows] in the ground,” says Gina Posner, M.D., a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. “So even if you’re getting your own sweet potato, it’s still going to have higher levels [of these metals]. It’s not that store-bought is anything different. It’s just that those vegetables … tend to have higher levels of chemicals.”

What can parents do to keep their children safe?

Even though the metals outlined in the congressional findings exist naturally in the food supply, experts say there are a few steps parents can take to reduce the amount of exposure your child has:

  • Eat a healthy, varied diet. Root vegetables like sweet potatoes and carrots are packed with nutrition, but because they grow in soil, they may also contain higher levels of these substances. Children should eat a variety of fruits and vegetables (think leafy greens, fresh berries and creamy avocado in addition to her favorite root veggies).
  • Limit the amount of rice on the menu. Rice products have tested higher for arsenic. Avoiding or limiting foods like rice cereal and teething biscuits made with rice can help lower your baby’s exposure.
  • When in doubt, ask your pediatrician. If you’re confused about the best options for your child, “ask, ask, ask,” your pediatrician, advises Ilan Shapiro, M.D., F.A.A.P., medical director of health education and wellness at AltaMed Health Services. Dr. Shapiro recommends parents stay up-to-date on the latest findings and educate themselves on the amount of chemicals in different products if they’re able to.

Is store-bought baby food still safe?

This news should not scare families away from purchasing baby food, experts say. Making the switch from store-bought purées (which can be a big time-saver for busy parents!) to homemade baby food won’t wipe out the substances in question from your little one’s diet.

“It has nothing to do with making your own baby food or buying organic, because these heavy metals are in the food supply,” Dr. Crosby says.

The bottom line? “We need to figure out how to clean up our environment so that there aren’t all these chemicals being leached into our foods,” Dr. Posner says.“But the reality is, you know, if you cook your own versus buying it from the store, it’s not that they’re adding lead or arsenic into it — it’s just [that] those vegetables tend to have higher levels because of how they’re grown.”

In the meantime, you can rest assured that buying baby food from the store and feeding it to your little one is generally very safe. 

“There are baseline levels of heavy metals in all foods, yet the vast majority of our children remain perfectly healthy,” says Marvin Resmovits, M.D., a board-certified pediatrician at Kidz Kare of Great Neck, a division of Prohealthcare, in Great Neck, New York, and member of the What to Expect Medical Review Board.

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