Baby Food and Heavy Metals: What Parents Should Do Now
Alarmingly high levels have been found in many big brands, including Beech-Nut and Gerber, a federal government report discloses
- Seven of the largest manufacturers of baby food in the U.S. were contacted for the report—Beech-Nut Nutrition Company, Campbell Soup Company (which sells Plum Organics), Gerber, Hain Celestial Group (which sells Earth’s Best organic products), Nurture (which sells Happy Family Organics and Happy Baby products), Sprout organic foods, and Walmart (which sells Parent's Choice).
- Though the levels cited in the report are very high, CR's lead scientist says parents should not panic, and they have many healthy options for feeding their babies.
- Experts say the government and industry can and should be doing more to protect babies.
Many popular baby food products contain a surprisingly high amount of dangerous heavy metals—including arsenic, cadmium, and lead, according to a new report released by a House subcommittee.
Though it is widely known that heavy metals are found in some foods because of contaminated water and soil, the levels found in baby food are particularly problematic.
Young children are especially vulnerable to the toxic effects of these substances, according to James Dickerson, PhD, chief scientific officer for Consumer Reports. “Exposure to heavy metals has a disproportionate adverse effect on developing minds and bodies.”
The subcommittee report provides further evidence that not enough is being done by baby food companies and the government to reduce the risk from exposure to these contaminants, and that parts of the manufacturing process, including the addition of vitamins and mineral mixes, may be contributing to the problem.
Although companies contend that they do what they can to remove toxic heavy metals from baby food, the high levels found in the report show that the process isn't effective enough.
Heavy metals all are part of the earth’s crust, so they are naturally found in the environment. But most of the heavy metals in food come from soil or water that has been contaminated through either farming and manufacturing practices (such as pesticide application, mining, and smelting) or pollution (such as the use of leaded gasoline).
Crops take up heavy metals from the soil and water as they grow, and some absorb more than others.
Yet, CR’s 2018 testing of baby food showed it is feasible for manufacturers to produce products with very low levels of these contaminants. About a third of the products we tested contained heavy metals below our level of concern, and in some products, there were no detectable levels of one or more heavy metals.
However, this same research by Consumer Reports, as well as work by other organizations, has shown that most baby food and fruit juice still contain harmful levels of heavy metals, the presence of which is largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration.
The subcommittee's report findings don’t mean that parents should stop giving their infants prepared baby food. But they should limit the amount and mix it in with more healthy choices (see our advice for parents, below.)
Heavy Metal Harms
Experts agree: There’s no safe level of exposure to heavy metals—meaning that the lower exposure can be, the better, especially for children.
“Lead, cadmium, and arsenic have deleterious effects on the developing infant mind, brain, cardiovascular system, and immune system,” says CR’s Dickerson. Those effects can lower IQ and are linked to behavior problems and ADHD, as well as an increased risk for skin and bladder cancer.
And these substances are ubiquitous enough that “every baby is likely exposed [to heavy metals] every single day,” says Jane Houlihan, research director at Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), a national alliance of scientists and child health advocacy organizations that has also tested heavy metals in baby food.
But while ubiquitous exposure and these seemingly high levels are concerning, parents should not panic or assume that all baby foods are problematic.
“Clearly, baby food manufacturers should be doing a lot more to keep levels of heavy metals in their products as close to zero as possible. However, you still need to feed your child,” CR’s Dickerson says.
“What the report shows, and what CR’s own testing has found, is that certain foods are riskier than others. In the context of an overall diverse and healthy diet, the occasional serving of even a product with these high levels will not permanently harm your child,” he says. Instead, it’s chronic exposure to these metals over time that’s problematic.
What the Report Found
In response to testing by CR and other organizations, the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy asked seven leading baby food manufacturers to provide internal data on testing for heavy metals in the ingredients they use and the products they sell.
The data from companies that responded to the subcommittee revealed a number of surprising concerns.
Many baby foods contain excessive amounts of heavy metals, the subcommittee’s report finds, and companies regularly sell products that contain ingredients (foods, spices, additives, or vitamins/minerals) that exceed their own internal standards for heavy metals.
Most of the companies don’t regularly test the finished products, and when they do, in many cases, they still allow products with high levels of heavy metals to go to market, according to the report. Organic products were as likely to have high levels as conventional products.
Establishing New Standards
Though the focus has been on the heavy metal content of the actual foods in the products—for instance rice and sweet potatoes—the subcommittee’s report highlights the often very high heavy metal content of other ingredients, such as spices, additives, and the vitamin mixes added to baby products. In certain cases, a company’s internal limits for these ingredients were often high. For example, the standards Beech-Nut set for vitamin mixes were more than 3,000 ppb arsenic and cadmium.
“We haven’t tested spices and vitamins that go into baby food [for heavy metals], but those results were surprisingly high,” Houlihan says.
The report also states that internal standards are insufficient. Some companies test only their ingredients, but the report cites a presentation given by Hain to the FDA that said ingredient testing routinely underestimated the amount of arsenic in final products. This could be due to some additives like a vitamin mix or due to the manufacturing process, according to CR’s Dickerson.
What’s more, companies used ingredients with higher levels of metals than their own standards allowed for. For example, Nurture said it sold all products tested, regardless of test results, according to the report.
“Companies have a responsibility on this one,” says Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director of the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), to more carefully monitor and select the ingredients they use. But regulators especially need to step up. “The bottom line is that FDA needs to regain the public trust that it can translate the science on these chemicals into action that’s necessary to protect people,” he says.
The EDF and HBBF are working with baby food producers through an initiative known as The Baby Food Council to set standards for acceptable levels of heavy metals in baby food and to develop ways to certify foods that comply with that standard.
“We’ve been working with the companies to develop baby food standards partly because we think the industry is willing to do more than what FDA will expect,” Neltner says. (The data in the subcommittee’s report was gathered before the Baby Food Council, which includes several of the companies named in the report, resolved to establish a standard for heavy metals in baby food.)
What the Companies Say
CR reached out to the seven companies named in the subcommittee report to see how they plan to address heavy metals in their products.
- A Gerber spokesperson said: “[T]he elements in question occur naturally in the soil and water in which crops are grown. To minimize their presence, we take multiple steps including: prioritizing growing locations based on climate and soil composition; approving fields before crops are planted based on soil testing; rotating crops according to best available science; and testing of produce, water and other ingredients.” They add that Gerber is also a founding member of the Baby Food Council.
- Nurture (Happy Family Organics) said: “Many of the results we provided as part of this 2019 report were collected based on a small portion of our portfolio and are not representative generally of our entire range of products at-shelf today.” Happy Family Organics is also working to develop a heavy metals standard as part of the Baby Food Council.
- Beech-Nut Nutrition said: “We want to reassure parents that Beech-Nut products are safe and nutritious. We are currently reviewing today’s subcommittee report. We look forward to continuing to work with the FDA, in partnership with the Baby Food Council, on science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry.”
- A Hain (Earth’s Best) spokesperson said: “We are disappointed that the subcommittee report examined outdated data and does not reflect our current practices.” The spokesperson said that after a meeting with the FDA in 2019, Hain took steps to reduce levels of heavy metals in products, and said the company is working with the Baby Food Council to reduce levels of heavy metals.
- Campbell Soup Company (Plum Organics) disputes the subcommittee’s assertion that it did not respond and posted a copy of its response online (PDF link). “We are surprised that the committee would suggest that Campbell was less than full partners in this mission,” the company said in a statement. In the report itself, the subcommittee says that Campbell provided a spreadsheet declaring that products “meet criteria” without explaining what those criteria are, which the report says “hides more than it reveals.” A senior Democratic committee aide tells CR that the subcommittee stands ready to receive any additional documents the company would like to provide.
- Walmart and Sprout did not respond to CR’s request for comment by press time.
Advice for Parents
These recommendations from CR’s food safety experts and nutritionists will help you minimize your child’s heavy metal intake, while maintaining an overall healthy diet.
Limit your child's intake of the highest-risk baby foods. These include rice, sweet potatoes, apple juice, and grape juice. “These often have worrisome levels of arsenic, in particular,” Dickerson says. Rice cereal was once considered the best first food for babies, but the FDA, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and other organizations say it's not the only option. Other whole grains, such as oatmeal, are good choices. In CR’s 2018 tests, eating less than 2.5 servings per day (a serving is ½ cup) of the baby oatmeal cereals we looked at did not pose a risk.
Ease up on the fruit juice. CR’s 2019 testing of fruit juices found high levels of lead and arsenic in several products. The subcommittee report also noted excessive levels of heavy metals in fruit juice. Plus fruit juice is not as nutritious as parents may think. “Even 100 percent fruit juice offers no nutritional benefit over whole fruit,” says Amy Keating, RD, a nutritionist at Consumer Reports. “It can contribute extra calories to a child’s diet, and drinking a lot of it has been linked to dental caries (cavities) and may lead to weight gain and obesity.” The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends limiting the amount of fruit juice kids drink, and that babies under the age of 1 not be given juice at all. For infants, formula or breast milk should be the only beverage they drink. For older children water and milk are the best choices.
Consider making your own. There’s no reason why a child or infant can’t eat the same foods as the rest of the family. This won’t completely reduce the amount of heavy metals in the diet—depending on the food, it may have naturally higher levels. But it does eliminate the risk of any heavy metals from additives used in the food.
Of course, the foods should be age appropriate and prepared in a way that makes it easy for the child to eat. “At first, it is best for the foods to have a very smooth texture. For instance, you can cook some broccoli and purée it or mash up some avocado for your baby,” Keating says. Talk to your pediatrician about ways to ensure your child is getting enough vitamins and minerals, because many baby foods are enriched or fortified with certain nutrients.
Making your own also means that you can potentially reduce the heavy metals in rice. In CR’s 2014 tests, white basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. had on average half as much inorganic arsenic as most other types. In addition, cooking rice the way you would pasta—in a large amount of water, then draining it—lowers the arsenic content of the rice.
Minimize baby food snacks. Puffs, teething biscuits, and crackers are among the products that are more likely to be high in heavy metals. Plus, Keating says, they’re highly processed foods. “They tend to have far more of the things you don’t want in your diet—additives, added sugars, sodium, and refined flours—and increasingly research is showing that highly processed foods are harmful to health overall, possibly raising the risk of cancer, heart disease, and obesity,” she says.
Vary the foods you feed your child. When you eat an array of different types of whole foods, you get an array of nutrients. So alternate the vegetables you give your child, for instance. Plus rotating foods may help you avoid overconsumption of heavy metals and provide nutrients (like vitamin C and zinc) that may help offset some of the damage heavy metals do to the body.
What Needs to Change
The subcommittee report points out that consumers think that baby food manufacturers would not sell unsafe products and the government would not allow unsafe products to be sold.
Indeed, about half of the people in a 2018 Consumer Reports survey of more than 3,000 individuals with an infant or toddler age 3 or younger in their household nationwide believed that packaged children’s foods are subject to more strict regulation and safety testing than other packaged foods.
But they aren’t. Though the Environmental Protection Agency requires municipal water systems to take steps to remove lead if water samples exceed 15 ppb, and the FDA has a limit of 5 ppb for bottled water, the FDA has set few limits for heavy metals in foods.
The most recent was the 100 ppb limit for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal. In 2013, the FDA proposed a 10 ppb limit for apple juice, but that has yet to be finalized. There are no limits for cadmium or mercury in any baby food.
A spokesperson for the FDA tells CR that the agency is reviewing the findings of the subcommittee report.
“Toxic elements, like arsenic, are present in the environment and enter the food supply through soil, water, or air,” the spokesperson said. “Because they cannot be completely removed, our goal is to reduce exposure to toxic elements in foods to the greatest extent feasible, and we have been actively working on this issue using a risk-based approach to prioritize and target the agency’s efforts.”
Krishnamoorthi says that while he’d “love to hope that the baby food companies would test all of their finished baby food products for at least these four toxic metals,” and that he’d love to think they would label these toxic metals and phase out ingredients that contain them, he’s also calling on the FDA to set standards for these metals in baby food, and introducing legislation requiring them to be regulated.
CR’s food safety experts say these are the steps that should be taken immediately:
- The FDA should finalize the guidance for arsenic in apple juice and extend that limit to other fruit juices as well.
- The agency should set standards for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in all children’s food, with the ultimate goal of having no measurable levels of heavy metals in foods meant to be eaten by infants and toddlers.
- The FDA should require baby food manufacturers to test their final products for heavy metals.
- Baby food manufacturers must take more aggressive action and not wait for the FDA to set limits. These companies should test their ingredients for heavy metals as they come into the plant and reject any that have excessive levels, and they should test samples of finished products from every production lot.