New Study on Heavy Metal Levels in Baby Foods
Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), which is an alliance of non-profit organizations, philanthropies, and scientists that designs and implements projects to reduce babies’ exposure to toxic chemicals, has released a study which found no evidence that homemade baby foods or family brand foods (defined as pre-packaged foods appropriate for the family and not just babies) are any safer with respect to heavy metals (lead, cadmium, mercury, and inorganic arsenic) than commercial store-bought brands. The study is based on HBBS testing of 288 foods, as well as analysis of food testing data from published studies.
While some variation was found with respect to the prevalence of particular heavy metals (commercial baby foods were less likely to have arsenic and mercury but more likely to have lead and cadmium), no difference was observed when analyzing for the presence of any detectable heavy metal: 94% of the tested commercial baby foods, and 94% of the tested homemade baby foods and family brand foods contained detectable heavy metals. Food type, and not the maker of the food, was found to be the most important variable. The report categorizes foods into 4 categories based on expected heavy metal levels: (1) “Serve” (lowest heavy metal levels, eat freely), (2) “Limit or Rotate” (moderate heavy metal levels), (3) “Serve rarely” (high heavy metal levels), and (4) “Avoid” (highest heavy metals). Of note, the “Avoid” category consisted entirely of rice products (e.g., rice cakes), which often contain high arsenic levels. Further, the reports recommends that certain otherwise nutritious foods (e.g., carrots and sweet potatoes) be fed less than daily and that different varieties be chosen to avoid potentially high heavy metal levels in these foods.
Overall, the report advocates a two-prong strategy. Parents should choose foods that are lower in heavy metals (“The Kitchen Solution”) while FDA should establish protective limits for heavy metals in all foods consumed by babies and young children (“The Country’s Solution”). To date, FDA has only set heavy metal limits in infant rice and juice, although its Closer to Zero plan promises to introduce additional heavy metal limits in baby foods in the coming years. Many, including HBBF, have criticized FDA’s efforts as one which is too slow and which places the burden of risk management on parents.