What Parents Need to Know About Heavy Metals & Baby Food

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You’re getting ready to start solids with your baby – what an exciting time! You’re trying to research what the best baby foods are and how to start with feeding. Suddenly your screen is flooded with articles talking about heavy metals in baby food. What?! Why are there metals in baby food? Are any of these safe? Let’s dive into what heavy metals in baby food really mean and how to navigate this challenge.

What is the impact of these metals on my baby?

Toxic metal exposure may be harmful to the developing brain. Studies have linked heavy metal exposure with difficulties in cognition, behavior, and learning. Is food to blame? Studies show that heavy metals are present in many baby foods however levels are quite low and play a small role in the overall risk of heavy metal exposure. With that being said, total exposure should be minimized as much as possible. See later on in this article for practical tips to minimize heavy metal exposure.

Where are these metals coming from?

Does this mean companies are adding metals to our baby’s food?! No, that is not the case. Heavy metals found in baby food – such as arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury – are present in the foods we eat. These metals are present in the soil that foods are grown in and are therefore absorbed into the foods. Metals may also get into food due to the way foods are manufactured, packaged and transported.

Which foods are highest in heavy metals?

Certain foods have been found to be higher in heavy metals than others. These include:

  • Brown rice
  • White rice
  • Baby rice cereal
  • Packaged snacks made with rice
  • Packaged entrees made with rice
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Carrots
  • Fruit juices

Store-bought vs. homemade baby food

Several studies over the years including the 2021 report from the US House Committee on Oversight and Reform have identified the presence of specific heavy metals – cadmium, lead, mercury, and arsenic – in baby food. Four baby food companies tested and found the presence of these heavy metals. With that being said, three additional companies were asked to provide sample information but did not. This is a small sample size but does show that these metals are present in the baby food supply. It’s important to note that organic baby foods showed similar levels of heavy metals compared to conventional.

Another study performed by Healthy Babies; Bright Futures found that homemade baby foods actually compared similarly to heavy metal content compared to store-bought.

If there’s no significant difference between store-bought and homemade baby food in terms of heavy metal contamination, what’s a parent to do?

What you can do

While the thought of heavy metals being in your child’s food can certainly be scary, there are ways to minimize the risk. Check out these practical tips below to support minimizing the risk of heavy metal contamination in your food and home.

  • Offer a variety of fruits & vegetables: First and foremost, offering a wide variety of foods is key. We know that the heavy metal content of soil may contribute to the metal content in produce. Oftentimes, there is a large reliance on sweet potatoes and carrots in the baby food space. Offering a wide range of food (whether that’s store-bought or homemade) can help to minimize the heavy metal contribution from root vegetables. In addition to trying new foods, choose blends that include multiple foods.
  • Be mindful of your rice: Brown rice ranked highest in terms of heavy metal (arsenic) content compared to other foods. White rice, such as sushi and basmati rice, contained less arsenic. Rinsing and draining your rice prior to cooking can help remove some of the metals. Additionally, if you cook your rice in extra water and drain it when cooked thoroughly, even more metals can be removed.
  • Try new grains: Rice is a very common ingredient in baby snacks and entrees. Choosing other grain sources such as oats, corn, quinoa, barley, and other healthy grains may be better options. Little Bellies offers an extensive range of organic puff snacks for babies and toddlers made with organic corn flour and wholegrain wheat flour. Organic means grown naturally without the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers.
  • Read the labels: Speaking of trying new foods and limiting high metal-containing foods, reading labels of baby food can provide you with even more information. The ingredients list is listed in terms of highest to lowest based on weight. For example, if the first 3 ingredients contain rice it is likely to provide more heavy metals compared to if it is lower on the list.
  • Minimize environmental heavy metal contributions:  Outside of food, there are many ways heavy metal exposure can occur. This can include regular smoking or vaping in the home. Second-hand and third-hand smoke can expose children to cadmium and lead. Additionally, check your water source. Heavy metals may leach into tap water due to old pipes. Your health department can test your water if this is of concern as well. Identifying and addressing lead hazards in your home can help reduce exposure to your baby. The most common source of lead exposure in older homes is from coming into contact with or consuming chipped paint. Additional sources of exposure include certain spices, soil, and cosmetics around the home.

The bottom line

Heavy metals are present around us – they may be in our homes, water supply, and food – even baby food. We know that high amounts of heavy metals may be harmful to the developing brain. With that being said, this is not a time for panic. Now is a time to create strategic approaches to feeding our children and minimizing environmental exposures as much as possible. Offer a wide range of foods and snacks along with water from a safe supply to support your child.

Have questions about your child’s risk? Speak with your pediatrician for individualized guidance on navigating heavy metal exposure for your child and family.   

Author: Nicole Lattanzio, RDN, CSP, IBCLC @infant.nutritionist
Owner, The Baby Dietitian PLLC

Photo by Yu Hosoi on Unsplash