New parents want the very best for their kids, but chances are, they are unknowingly feeding them baby food that contains toxic heavy metals, and a new report has added onto the pile of scientific studies that show how it can hinder brain development.
U.S. congressional investigators found "dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals" in certain baby foods that could cause neurological damage, a House Oversight subcommittee wrote in a report released in early February. It called for new testing standards, including setting maximum levels of toxic heavy metals permitted in baby foods and requiring manufacturers to test finished products for heavy metals, not just individual ingredients.
This update comes more than a year after similar headline-making news following an investigation published by Healthy Babies Bright Futures in October 2019. According to that organization, tests of 168 baby foods from major US manufacturers found that 95 percent contained some form of metal — nearly every one contained lead, 75 percent contained cadmium, 73 percent contained arsenic, and 32 percent contained mercury. One in four foods contained all of them.
"Our findings raise concerns, but on the spectrum from worry to action, parents can choose to act. While no amount of heavy metals is considered safe, less is better."
Reports of such contaminants being hidden within infant foods isn't even remotely new. It's been nearly a decade since reports revealed concerning levels of arsenic to be found in rice. Back in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended diversifying baby's diet to reduce risks, and back in 2016, the Food and Drug Administration began creating limits on how much of the naturally occurring ingredient could be present in foods. And more reports keep coming. Earlier this very year, Consumer Reports announced that potentially harmful heavy metals were found in popular juice brands.
So, what are parents to do with all these repeated — and alarming — studies?
Up until recently, the AAP's long-standing recommendation was the gold standard. A diverse diet would keep from any of these metals from causing any meaningful damage.
But the Healthy Babies Bright Futures study gave "first-ever estimates of the population-wide decline in IQ from children's exposures to lead and arsenic in food, from birth to 24 months of age." It purported that "even in the trace amounts found in food, these contaminants can alter the developing brain and erode a child's IQ" and noted that it adds up with each meal or snack a baby eats.
According to Healthy Babies Bright Futures, parents can offer safer alternatives to their babies. The key takeaways from the report focus on introducing more of a nutritional variety and avoiding the most common culprits:
- Offer a wide variety of first foods. The AAP maintains its guidelines that parents should offer more diverse options from the start. A mix of grains — barley, wheat, and quinoa, for instance — are better than serving just one. And introducing pureed vegetables sooner rather than later helps babies develop their taste buds and decrease potential food allergies.
- Avoid rice. Forgoing rice of all forms, particularly rice cereal — often suggested as baby's first food — is key as rice-based foods top the list of contaminated foods. Oatmeal or multigrain cereals are ideal substitutes. If you opt to cook rice for toddlers, the report recommends choosing basmati rice ("white rice has less arsenic than brown rice") and cooking it in extra water that is 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.
- Avoid juice. Not only are juices high in sugar and lack fiber, they also contain some lead and arsenic, so the AAP fervently recommend parents keep it away from their kids. Babies under 6 months only need breast milk or formula, and 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 the report 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.
The study's tests indicate that these simple actions can help lower a baby's exposure to harmful heavy metals significantly:
Still, the study cautions parents against panic and admit that this is only one of many elements that can affect a baby's development:
"Many factors can influence a child's IQ, from nutrition and genetics to environmental toxins," the report stated. "And many sources ratchet up children's exposures to heavy metals, from drinking water and old plastic toys to lead in dust from chipping paint and soil tracked into the house. Our findings raise concerns, but on the spectrum from worry to action, parents can choose to act. While no amount of heavy metals is considered safe, less is better."