New Study Finds Heavy Metals in Baby Foods. Here's What to Know.

When you're feeding your baby, the hope is that their food is made with healthy ingredients that will nourish them and help them grow. But new research shows that some of the most popular brands of baby food contain heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, and lead — despite the push to reduce the levels of these potentially harmful substances. According to a new Consumer Reports (CR) study, a follow-up from 2018, Earth's Best Organic, Organics Happy Baby, Beechnut Naturals, Gerber, and Baby Mum-Mum all contain concerning amounts of these three metal substances.

This news comes after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed a new limit on the amount of lead permissible in baby food, given that years of studies have demonstrated that processed foods made for babies and children under age 2 are contaminated with toxic heavy metals that can hinder brain development. But these are only proposed guidelines: if formally adopted, then the FDA will be able to force companies to abide by the new limits.

Though it seems like a step in the right direction, it's important to note that there's no determined "safe level" of lead for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child's intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement," per the CDC.

The recent CR report also showed that "long-term intake of heavy metals may increase the risk of a variety of health and developmental problems in young children, including a lower IQ and behavioral issues, as well as ADHD, autism, and other issues."

"While concerning, these results are no reason to panic," says Eric Boring, PhD, a CR chemist who oversaw the testing. The risk comes from repeated exposure over long periods of time. "An occasional serving of even one of the foods with the highest levels is generally OK," Boring says. "Just remember to mix up what your kids eat." CR also includes a breakdown of the specific foods they tested and where they fall on the scale of concern. Ahead, more general tips on how to protect your baby from lead and general heavy metal exposure.

How to Reduce Your Child's Risk

What are parents to do with all these repeated — and alarming — studies?

Unfortunately, lead cannot be completely removed from the food supply, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). That's because "just as fruits, vegetables, and grain crops readily absorb vital nutrients from the environment, these foods also take up contaminants, like lead, that can be harmful to health," per the FDA. To help manage your child's exposure levels, both the AAP and FDA stress the importance of feeding your young children a variety of healthy foods.

"To support child growth and development, we recommend parents and caregivers feed children a varied and nutrient-dense diet across and within the main food groups of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and protein foods," Susan Mayne, PhD, director of the FDA's Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, said in the FDA's new draft guidance. "This approach helps your children get important nutrients and may reduce potential harmful effects from exposure to contaminants from foods that take up contaminants from the environment."

According to the AAP, FDA, and a 2022 report by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, the following steps can also help reduce your child's risk of contaminated foods:

  • Offer a wide variety of first foods. The AAP maintains its guidelines that parents should offer diverse options. According to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, the least-contaminated foods are bananas, grits, baby-food-brand meats, butternut squash, lamb, apples, pork, eggs, oranges, and watermelon.
  • Cleaning fresh fruits and vegetables. The AAP recommends thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables and peeling those that can be peeled. Healthy Babies Bright Futures recommends opting for fresh or frozen (thawed) fruit (including homemade purees) instead of canned fruit for less lead.
  • Avoid rice. Rice cakes and crisped rice cereal are heavily contaminated with arsenic, according to Healthy Babies Bright Futures. Oatmeal or multigrain cereals are ideal substitutes. If you opt to cook rice for toddlers, choose white rice over brown rice and cook it in extra water that will be poured off before serving.
  • Avoid teething biscuits. These, too, can contain a host of heavy metals, so opt for a wet washcloth or a silicone teether. If food is preferred, a frozen banana or a chilled cucumber are better options.
  • Avoid juice. Fruit juices also contain some lead and arsenic, so the AAP strongly recommends parents keep them away from kids. Babies under 6 months only need breast milk or formula; beyond that, water and milk are the best choices.
  • Be mindful of orange root vegetables. Sweet potatoes and carrots are great sources of vitamin A, but Healthy Babies Bright Futures found them high in lead and cadmium. Although no one is suggesting kids shouldn't eat these veggies, continuing to offer a variety helps mitigate risks.

—Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo and Alexis Jones