- A report released this month by a nutrition advocacy group found heavy metals present in 95% of baby foods tested.
- In high concentrations, these chemicals could affect a child’s brain development.
- Nutritionist and registered dietitian Jennifer Anderson said she’s concerned the report will lead panicked parents to cut out critical sources of nutrition, including carrots and sweet potatoes.
- Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Even before Jennifer Anderson had a chance to finish analyzing a new report about the high presence of heavy metals in baby foods and juices, the nutritionist and registered dietitian’s inbox was flooded with messages from anxious parents.
“I was up all night worrying about my child,” read one.
“I wasn’t able to breathe after reading this,” read another.
The report, published earlier this month by advocacy group Healthy Babies Bright Futures, found heavy metals in 95% of baby foods tested. Despite these stunning findings, Anderson and other health experts say that parents shouldn’t panic or entirely eliminate the foods listed in the report. Instead, they should focus on feeding their babies as wide a range of foods as possible.
In 95% of baby foods tested, at least one heavy metal was present
The report has understandably sent many parents of young children into a frenzy. The researchers tested 168 products from 61 baby food brands for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, which can have a deleterious effect on children’s brain development.
The report estimated that babies up until 2 years old collectively lose about 11 million IQ points in the US, due to exposure to arsenic and lead in food.
The fact that certain foods babies typically eat contain traces of heavy metals has been well-documented. This report, however, was the first to attempt to quantify the consequences of regularly ingesting these foods.
Specifically, the investigation honed in on the health risks associated with carrots, sweet potatoes, rice products, and fruit juices.
Concerns are greater for babies of this age because of the amount they eat compared to their body weight. Because their cells are turning over at such a rapid rate, nutrients and toxins have more of an impact on their development, said Erin McDowell, a pediatric emergency medicine physician at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, Ohio.
One of the goals of the report was to pressure the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to better regulate baby food. The FDA was supposed to have finalized its guidelines for baby cereals and fruit juices by the end of last year. It missed that deadline and hasn’t set a new one.
“[It] remains a priority for us and we are working on getting it out as soon as we can,” Amanda Turney, an FDA press officer, told Insider.
Health experts fear that parents will cut important foods from their babies’ diets
But an unintended consequence of the report, Anderson worries, is that parents may cut out foods that are mentioned, which, in turn, will deprive their children of critical nutrients.
“I don’t see this report promoting health. I see it promoting fear,” Anderson told Insider. “Anxiety rates are quite high and now we are saying, ‘Hey, you just made your child less smart and gave them brain damage because you fed your baby rice cereal.”
“There are ways to communicate health risks without putting parents over the edge,” Anderson said.
Heavy metals are part of the earth’s crust and crops absorb them from soil as they grow, which means they’re essentially inescapable. Even if a parent were to swear off buying manufactured baby food, the risk would still be there when steaming carrots or baking a sweet potato purchased from a supermarket.
But Anderson noted that nutritionists recommend that children eat one orange vegetable a day, and only a handful of varieties exist. If parents stop serving carrots and sweet potatoes, they won’t be left with many accessible alternatives.
Orange vegetables are particularly crucial because they are rich in Vitamin A, which supports eye health. Vitamin A deficiency is one of the most common deficiencies among young children in the US and around the world. An estimated 250,000 to 500,000 children a year lose their eyesight due to the condition, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology.
Rice-based food were a top source of heavy metals in the report
Rice-based foods, especially rice cereals, were a top source of heavy metals in the report. Four of the seven rice cereals tested exceeded the FDA’s safety limit for inorganic arsenic.
Even so, rice cereal doesn’t need to be eliminated entirely, according to Anderson. It’s fortified with iron, and in many families, that might be the only way to get the nutrient. Further complicating matters, children with iron deficiency anemia are also at risk of developing learning difficulties.
“Every single food is going to have benefits and it has downsides,” Anderson said. “You could kill yourself drinking too much water.”
Rice also functions as a staple in many cultures, an important issue the report neglected to take into account.
“There is a connection,” Anderson said of what it means when a food serves as a staple. “There is a satisfaction. There is a deep connection to the food.”
If you want to play it safe, cut out processed rice products
Not all types of rice pose the same risks.
White rice has less arsenic than brown rice. Basmati rice grown in California, India and Pakistan has the lowest levels of arsenic. Rice from Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas has the highest levels, the authors of the report noted.
There are also ways to mitigate risk. Cooking rice in extra water that is poured off before serving it can cut arsenic levels by up to 60%.
While McDowell doesn’t advocate eliminating foods, she said that if a parent is looking to play it safe, she would recommend cutting out processed rice products, including puffs and teething biscuits, since they don’t have much nutritional value anyway.
Rice cereal was once lauded as the go-to first food for babies, but that’s no longer the case, McDowell said. Early on, parents can introduce oatmeal and other nutritionally-dense foods, which are easy for babies to eat.
She also urges parents to refrain from serving juice to babies and children.
Babies should be exposed to a variety of foods
The main takeaway from the report, experts agree, is that as babies are learning to eat solids, they should be exposed to as many foods as possible — ones that are whole, and not processed.
McDowell and Anderson said that when it’s developmentally appropriate, parents should breeze through the pureed foods phase, and transition into feeding babies what the rest of what the family is eating, taking into account safe portion sizes.
“Get them eating table food as quickly as you can,” McDowell said. “Those foods are also going to have heavy metals in them — because all foods do. Giving them the widest variety of foods that you can — as quickly as you can — is really good for them.”