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‘Concerning levels’ of heavy metals found in popular baby and toddler foods

Lars Plougmann
Every product in Consumer Reports' analysis had measurable levels of at least one of these heavy metals: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead.

Many popular baby food products contain “concerning levels” of heavy metals, including lead, cadmium and inorganic arsenic, according to a report released Thursday by Consumer Reports.

For the report, the organization’s researchers purchased three samples each of 50 nationally distributed packaged food items made for babies and toddlers. These included baby cereals, packaged fruits and vegetables, packaged entrees (such as turkey and rice dinners) and packaged snacks (such as crackers, snack bars and teething biscuits).

The researchers then analyzed those foods for the presence of cadmium, lead, mercury and inorganic arsenic. The tests revealed the following:

  • Every product had measurable levels of at least one of these heavy metals: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead.
  • About two-thirds (68 percent) had worrisome levels of at least one heavy metal.
  • Fifteen of the foods would pose potential health risks to a child regularly eating just one serving or less per day.
  • Snacks and products containing rice and/or sweet potatoes were particularly likely to have high levels of heavy metals.
  • Organic foods were as likely to contain heavy metals as conventional foods. 

The testing did reveal one encouraging finding, however: “It showed that 16 of the products had less concerning levels of the heavy metals, suggesting that all baby food manufacturers should be able to achieve similar results,” the report says. 

No need to panic

As the Consumer Reports researchers point out, exposure to cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead and mercury (especially methylmercury) at an early age is associated with an increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, behavior problems and a lower IQ: 

For example, researchers at Duke University looked at 565 adults who had their lead levels measured as children. Those with high childhood lead readings had IQ levels 4.25 points lower, on average, than those with lower childhood lead levels.

Exposure to inorganic arsenic may also affect IQ, according to a recent Columbia University study of third- through fifth-graders in Maine. Students who had been exposed to arsenic in drinking water had IQ levels 5 to 6 points lower, on average, than students who had not been exposed. 

Parents who have been giving these products to their children shouldn’t panic, however.

“The heavy metal content in baby and toddler foods is a concerning issue but not an imminent threat,” says James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports, in the new report. “The risk comes from exposure over time, and the risk can be mitigated. Making changes to your child’s diet now can reduce the chance of negative outcomes in the future.”

Other factors — such as genetics, type of exposure and the overall quality of a child’s diet — influence how a child’s body will respond to the ingestion of heavy metals, the report adds.

What parents can do

Consumer Reports describes what it believes regulators and food manufacturers should do to reduce children’s exposure to potentially dangerous heavy metals. For regulators, the needed actions include establishing an aggressive target of no measurable amount of lead, cadmium and inorganic arsenicin baby and children’s foods. For manufacturers, the needed actions include getting their source ingredients from areas of the world with lower levels of heavy metals in the soil.

“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),” the report points out.

But parents shouldn’t wait for regulators and manufacturers to act. Here are Consumer Reports’ recommendations for what you can do right now to lower your child’s exposure to heavy metals:

Limit the amount of infant rice cereal your child eats. Cereal is often a baby’s first solid food because it is easy to swallow, and it’s usually fortified with iron, an important nutrient for babies. But both the FDA and the American Academy of Pediatrics say that there’s no reason it must be rice cereal and that infants should be given a variety of cereals, noting concerns about levels of inorganic arsenic in those products. “Parents have other choices—there are iron-fortified cereals made from other whole grains, such as oats, that are lower in inorganic arsenic,” Rogers says.

Choose the right rice. In previous CR tests, brown rice had more inorganic arsenic than white rice of the same type. White basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S., are good choices that had, on average, half as much inorganic arsenic as most other types. Rice cakes, cereal, and pasta were also high in inorganic arsenic.

Rethink rice prep. Cook it in a large amount of water — the FDA recommends 6 to 10 parts water to 1 part rice — and drain it well afterward. This will help reduce arsenic content.

Limit packaged snacks. Many contain rice flour, but even those without it don’t supply much nutritional value. “Even without the heavy metal risks, snack items aren’t a necessary part of your child’s diet, and they can have added sugars and sodium,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a nutritionist at Consumer Reports. The same goes for rice cakes, rice crackers, and chips that you and your child may eat.

Seek out whole foods low in heavy metals. Based on their review of the data from the Total Diet Study, our experts suggested a few easy-to-pack foods, suitable for snacking, that are very low in heavy metals: apples, applesauce (unsweetened), avocadosbananas, barley with diced vegetables, beanscheese, grapes, hard-boiled eggs, peaches, strawberries, and yogurt.

Be wary of fruit juice. Past CR tests found inorganic arsenic and lead in many brands of apple and grape juices. In addition, all fruit juices are concentrated sources of sugars, and lack fiber. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends not giving any fruit juice to babies in the first year of life, and limiting juice to 4 ounces a day for kids ages 1 to 3 years and 6 ounces for 4- to 6-year-olds, for nutritional reasons.

Go easy on the chocolate. Cocoa powder may contain cadmium and/or lead. Cocoa itself may have more than dark chocolate, and dark chocolate may have more than milk chocolate.

Pick the right fish. Bigeye tuna, king mackerel, orange roughy, shark, and swordfish are particularly high in methylmercury. Children and women of childbearing age should avoid these fish; others should eat them infrequently, if at all.

Take a pass on protein powders. These may contain arsenic, cadmium, and lead, according to tests from CR and others. Whey and egg-based powders tended to have less than plant-based ones — such as soy and hemp —  but even they should be used in moderation. You probably don’t need them anyway. “The vast majority of people get plenty of protein from the foods they eat,” says Keating. “And when you get your protein from foods, you also benefit from all the other nutrients found in whole foods.”

Check your water. If you get your water from a well, or if your home has older pipes, consider having your water tested. Heavy metals sometimes seep into well water, and older pipes may have been made with lead.

Eat a broad array of healthful whole foods. Rotating the foods you eat may help you avoid overconsumption of heavy metals and provide a variety of nutrients that may help offset some of the damage heavy metals do to the body. These include calcium, iron, selenium, vitamin C, and zinc.

FMI: You can read the Consumer Reports report, including its findings regarding the specific products it tested, at the organization’s website.

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