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Toxic Chemicals Baby Food — What Parents Can Do

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Experts say rice-based products can contain arsenic, so they recommend safer alternatives, such as oatmeal. Getty Images
  • A consumer health group says almost all baby food contains at least one toxic chemical.
  • Researchers said the amounts of toxins in baby food are small, but the chemical contamination can build up over time.
  • Experts advise parents to avoid rice-based products and feed infants foods such as oatmeal.

Too many toxins are finding their way into food for young children, a new report says.

Tests of baby food sold in the United States revealed that 95 percent contain one or more toxic chemicals, including lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium.

And 1 in 4 of the 168 baby foods tested contained all four heavy metals, according to the report from the group Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF).

The amounts of toxins found in baby food were small, but Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatrician and director of the Program in Global Public Health and the Common Good in the Schiller Institute for Integrated Science and Society at Boston College, noted, “Arsenic, lead, and other heavy metals are known causes of neurodevelopmental harm.”

“Low level exposures add up, and exposures in early life are especially dangerous,” he told Healthline. “The cumulative impact of exposures is what makes this a significant concern that demands action.”

In some cases, the toxins had natural origins.

For example, 4 of 7 infant rice cereals contained levels of inorganic arsenic higher than the standard of 100 parts per billion set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Since rice is known to readily absorb arsenic naturally found in soil, health experts advised parents to find alternative foods to feed their children, such as oatmeal in place of rice cereal.

Making such choices can eliminate toxin exposure by as much as 80 percent.

Among the high-risk foods for infants were rice-based snacks and meals (puffs snacks, teething biscuits, and infant rice cereal), carrots, sweet potatoes, and fruit juices.

Among the safer alternatives for young children are rice-free snacks, non-rice cereal (such as multigrain and oatmeal cereals), and non-rice-based soothing foods for teething (like a frozen banana or chilled cucumber).

Parents are also urged to serve a variety of vegetables, which contain a range of nutrients, and avoid relying too much on food types that may contain higher levels of toxins.

“You need to make sure your kids have a varied diet,” Lisa Barnett, co-founder of organic baby food company Little Spoon, told Healthline.

The advice goes against the old adage about introducing infants to one food at a time, but as Barnett notes, varying the child’s diet can ensure they get “nutrients that can act as a buffer to heavy metal absorption, or help the body eliminate them.”

“Multiple studies have discussed various arsenic levels in rice, so for years I have been telling parents to stay away from rice cereal,” Dr. Gina Posner, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in California, told Healthline.

“I also suggest minimizing the amount of root vegetables given to a child based on what researchers found in terms of elevated levels of toxic substances,” she said. “Also, there has never been a healthy reason for giving children juice, so now there is even more of a reason for parents to avoid it altogether.”

Luz Claudio, PhD, a professor of environmental medicine and public health at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York, told Healthline that she prepared her own baby food when her daughter was an infant, using steamed and pureed organic fruit and vegetables.

“One of the important things for parents to remember is that you may not know all of the ingredients (intentional or unintentional) that may go into baby food and juices marketed for children, even if you read the label,” Claudio said. “These products can have high levels of sodium, preservatives, artificial colors, pesticides, and other contaminants or additives.”

However, even organic foods prepared without chemical pesticides aren’t immune from toxic contamination of soil and water.

“Organic standards do not address these contaminants, and foods beyond the baby food aisle are equally affected,” the report noted.

Jane Houlihan, HBBF research director and an author of the study, told Healthline that because heavy metals are in the food chain, the making of toxin-free baby foods requires careful sourcing and rigorous testing.

Organic vegetables grown next to an older highway, for example, may be planted in soil contaminated by passing cars spewing leaded gasoline fumes for decades.

Rice grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas is known to have higher arsenic levels than rice grown in California, India, or Pakistan.

Little Spoon sources its carrots from California and its sweet potatoes from Washington, where soil contamination levels are lower.

“It can also vary from field to field,” Houlihan said.

The manufacturing process may also introduce metal contamination into foods.

To avoid this problem, some companies have switched to stainless steel equipment.

At Little Spoon, products are made by hand and purified under cold water pressure, rather than heat-pasteurized in industrial facilities.

Manufacturers have taken other steps to keep environmental toxins out of their products, in part due to a draft guidance from the FDA about acceptable levels of contaminants in baby food.

“This is top of mind for the industry. Because baby food companies are voluntarily testing, it may be that their foods have lower levels of toxins than items you find in the grocery store” to make homemade baby food, Houlihan said.

Manufacturers, HBBF, and groups such as the Environmental Defense Fund have partnered to form the new Baby Food Council with the goal of minimizing the presence of heavy metal in processed baby food.

“Current arsenic contamination levels in rice cereal and juice are 36 percent and 75 percent less, respectively, than the amounts measured a decade ago,” Houlihan said.

“When FDA acts, companies respond. We need the FDA to use their authority more effectively, and much more quickly, to reduce toxic heavy metals in baby foods,” she said.


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