By Jessica Bosworth, M.S.
Recently the New York Times and other publications reported on toxic levels of heavy metals found in popular baby food brands. Because of widespread pollution, it is almost impossible to avoid consuming contaminated products, but does that mean the amount found in baby food is acceptable and unavoidable?
The report summarizes the results as follows: “The test results of baby foods and their ingredients eclipse [allowable] levels: including results 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” (1).
Dangers Posed by Heavy Metals
As a mother and future registered dietitian, this information was concerning to me especially considering the impact heavy metals can have on our health.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) states on their website: “There is no safe level of lead exposure in children” (2).
Elevated levels of lead in the blood can lead to poor bone and mental development, increased blood pressure, anemia, nephrotoxicity and neurological impairments. With each 1 μg / dL increase in blood concentration there is a decrease in IQ in children (3).
Approximately 60-75% of inorganic arsenic ingested with food is absorbed (3). Chronic toxic exposure can lead to skin lesions, lung disease, and decreased intellectual functioning (4).
Cadmium has a long half-life in the body, any cadmium ingested can lead to accumulation. Ingesting cadmium can cause damage to some organs, especially the kidneys. An elevated intake of cadmium is associated with hypertension, some cancers, and osteomalacia (3).
According to Medical News Today mercury poisoning can affect a child’s development. It can lead to “impaired motor skills, problems thinking or problem-solving, difficulties learning to speak or understanding language, issues with hand-eye coordination, [and] being physically unaware of their surroundings” (5).
Is exposure to heavy metals unavoidable?
It is true that due to pollution many foods contain heavy metals such as lead and arsenic. To ensure that the public is not being bombarded with toxic levels of these substances, the FDA regularly investigates and tests foods from across the country as part of the Total Diet Study (TDS).
The most recent report available on their website includes data collected from 2006-2013 (6). While ingredients like sweet potatoes and carrots did have measurable levels of arsenic and lead (see below), those levels are much lower than the results identified in the baby food products.
TDS Results from 2006-2013:
- Carrots baby, raw – 1 ppb lead
- Carrots fresh, peeled, boiled – 2ppb lead
- Sweet Potatoes, Canned – 12 ppb lead
Ingredients Used in Baby Foods (*the goal level for lead in baby food is 1 ppb) :
- Carrots – 20 ppb lead
- Sweet potato – 55 ppb lead
Unfortunately, foods like rice and root vegetables do have higher levels of contaminants. But there are steps we can take to reduce exposure to heavy metals and other environmental toxins.
Food Swaps to Reduce Exposure
Environmental pollution is present in foods, so making foods at home may not completely protect children. Healthy Babies Bright Futures released a report with some information on heavy metals and some suggested food swaps to reduce exposure to toxins that you can share with caregivers.
These strategies can also help reduce heavy metal exposure from food:
- Reduce rice intake, check all labels for rice flour
- When preparing rice, add extra water, then pour it off before serving
- Vary foods, for most children there is no need to wait days before introducing a new food
- Limit or avoid juice
- Peel sweet potatoes, carrots, and other root vegetables and serve them less frequently
Jessica Bosworth, M.S. graduated from Drexel University with a master’s degree in human nutrition and dietetics in June 2020 and will begin her internship in September 2021. She took some time off after having her first son, during her pregnancy and first few months with her son she became increasingly interested in prenatal and toddler nutrition. She has spent time researching topics related to maternal, infant, and toddler health as well as preconception health, issues with fertility, and breastfeeding. Jessica views mothers as the keys to maintaining family health and bettering the health of the country as a whole and hopes to be able to work with this population after completing her internship. You can check out her website http://jessnutrition.com/.
- United States, Congress, Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Committee on Oversight and Reform U.S. House of Representatives. Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy Committee on Oversight and Reform U.S. House of Representatives.
- Lead Exposure in Children. American Academy of Pediatrics.
- Ann, Brown Bowman Barbara, and Robert M. Russell. Present Knowledge in Nutrition. ILSI Press, International Life Sciences Institute, 2006.
- Majumdar KK, Guha Mazumder DN. Effect of drinking arsenic-contaminated water in children. Indian J Public Health. 2012 Jul-Sep;56(3):223-6. doi: 10.4103/0019-557X.104250. PMID: 23229215.
- “Mercury Poisoning: Symptoms and Early Signs.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320563.
- Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “Total Diet Study.” U.S. Food and Drug Administration, FDA,