Baby Food and Heavy Metals – Should We Be Worried?

There has been a lot of discussion in the media recently regarding the possibility of heavy metal contamination of commercial baby food. Understandably, this has led to a lot of parental worry about whether baby food is safe to give to infants. 

A recent investigation by a United States government subcommittee evaluated packaged baby foods made by the companies Nurture (Happy Baby), Beech-Nut, Hain (Earth’s Best Organic), and Gerber and found that there are significant levels of toxic heavy metals in these products, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. Campbell (Plum Organics), Walmart (Parent’s Choice), and Sprout Organic Foods refused to participate in the investigation, so it is unknown whether their products contain metals. This is important because each of these metals can have negative effects on babies’ developing nervous systems, leading to cognitive delays that persist later in life. There is no known level to which babies can be exposed that is considered “safe” for them. 

What does this mean? First, it is important to know that we are all regularly exposed to small amounts of heavy metals in our environment. For example, soil has trace amounts of arsenic, so plants grown in the soil are exposed. Rice is a good example of a grain that is more heavily exposed to arsenic due to the way it is grown in the soil. We may be exposed to lead inadvertently as well; living in older homes, using imported cosmetic products or spices, or visiting a shooting range are all potential lead exposures. Overall, the amount of heavy metals your baby is exposed to through baby food is likely proportionally small. It is unknown based on the investigation how much of the metal found in the baby foods was due to naturally occurring metals in the environment versus introduction of metals related to the manufacturing process. This requires further important investigation, so that we can ensure the safety of the foods we feed our developing babies. Our overall goal is to minimize metal exposure from all sources, including food. Below are some tips:

  1. Exclusively breastfeed your baby for the first six months of life if possible. Breastmilk has numerous health benefits for babies, and it is all your baby needs nutritionally for six months; even thereafter, solids are complementary and are initially offered for exposure and taste. If you are unable to exclusively breastfeed, infant formula that is made in the United States and regulated by the FDA is a safe and acceptable alternative. Babies are developmentally ready for solids close to 6 months of age, and earlier introduction of solids is not supported by evidence except in the case of significant eczema/susceptibility to food allergies. 
  2. Offer a variety of infant foods. For example, do not feed your baby rice cereal for each meal. Consider a grain such as infant oatmeal, and alternate with other types of foods such as fruits and vegetables. As your baby progresses with textures, it is a good idea to offer table foods, such as avocado, pasta, or bananas, increasing texture complexity as baby is ready. Offer fresh or homemade foods. You may consider making your own homemade pureed infant food. As your infant is beginning to try meats, be sure to offer fish that is lower in mercury (light tuna, salmon, cod, whitefish, or pollock are good examples). 
  3. Limit heavy metal exposure in other environments. Check the year your home is built and ensure there is no old, peeling paint. Consider your water source – well water is a common source of lead exposure for children. Imported spices such as turmeric, cosmetics, painted toys, and processed foods are other sources of lead exposure to minimize. 
  4. Attend your child’s regular checkups. We don’t just track your child’s growth; we follow cognitive, social, and motor development for each developmental stage as well. We also routinely screen for lead exposure per the American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines. 

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