Laboratory analysis of 50 big-name baby foods showed the presence of at least one heavy metal in all of them, with two-thirds having “worrisome” levels, according to information from Consumer Reports. Researchers also said organic products were as likely to have lead or other heavy metals as non-organic foods. 

Every product tested had measurable levels of at least one of the three substances Consumer Reports tested for — cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead. Fifteen of the baby and toddler foods would pose potential health risks to children who regularly eat one serving or less per day, according to the researchers.

The iconic organization found reason for hope in the data, though. That hope hinges on industry voluntarily doing the right thing or government strengthening food safety regulations.

“Our testing did have some encouraging findings for parents: 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,” according to Consumer Reports.

“In about a third of the products we tested, the amounts of heavy metals were below our level of concern, and for some of the products, amounts of some metals were not measurable. Every category of food we tested was represented in that lower-risk group. That indicates that there are ways for manufacturers to significantly reduce or eliminate these metals from their products.”

The researchers checked 50 popular baby and toddler foods, purchasing three samples of each from retailers across the country. Consumer Reports stressed that the findings were a spot check of the market and should not be used to draw definitive conclusions about specific brands. The products tested fall into four categories:

  • Baby cereals;
  • Packaged fruits and vegetables;
  • Packaged entrées such as turkey and rice dinners; and
  • Packaged snacks, including cookies, crackers, crunches, puffs, snack bars, wafers, and biscuits such as teething biscuits and rice rusks.

Most of the products came from the two biggest U.S. baby food manufacturers, Beech-Nut and Gerber. The researchers also checked food sold under the brands Baby Mum-Mum, Earth’s Best, Ella’s Kitchen, Happy Baby, Walmart’s Parent’s Choice, Plum Organics and Sprout. Of the 50 products tested, 34 contained “concerning levels” of cadmium, lead, and/or inorganic arsenic, according to the research report.

“Products made with rice fared the worst in our tests. That’s because they contained worrisome amounts of inorganic arsenic, and many also had lead and cadmium,” the researchers reported.

“In many of the foods we tested, the levels of heavy metals combined were more concerning than the level of any one specific heavy metal. Each of these metals has shown similar adverse effects on children’s developing brains and nervous systems, and there are potential additive effects.”

Consumer Reports divided the tested foods into categories of “more concern” and “less concern,” with its experts saying parents shouldn’t be too worried if they’ve been feeding their infants and toddlers foods found to be of “more concern.”

Eating the foods doesn’t guarantee that a child will develop health problems, but that it may simply increase that risk, according to the research report. Whether problems develop depends on several factors, including genetics and exposure to other sources of heavy metals, such as from lead paint or contaminated water.

“The heavy metal content in baby and toddler foods is a concerning issue but not an imminent threat,” James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports said in the organization’s report, which was released yesterday. “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.”

Also, the amount of contaminated food eaten plays a big role. For instance, the analysis showed it would take more than five servings of Plum Organics’ Little Yums Organic Teething Wafers per day before a child’s intake from that product alone reached a level of concern.

However, the scientists said the presence of heavy metals, particularly lead, isn’t something to ignore. The amount of heavy metals in one food can be low, but because heavy metals are so pervasive in foods and the environment — and because they tend to accumulate in the body — small amounts can add up.

“Babies and toddlers are particularly vulnerable due to their smaller size and developing brains and organ systems,” said Consumer Reports’ director of food safety research and testing, James E. Rogers. “They also absorb more of the heavy metals that get into their bodies than adults do.”

Lead is also particularly dangerous for babies and young children because it can disrupt cognitive development, resulting in learning difficulties and lower intelligence. In older children and adults regularly consuming even tiny amounts of lead can increase the risk of bladder, lung and skin cancer, as well as causing reproductive problems. 

Regardless of age, heavy metals can remain in the human body for years, according to Tunde Akinleye, a chemist in Consumer Reports’ food safety division who led the testing research.

Seeking government intervention
Along with the release of its baby food analysis, Consumer Reports sent a letter yesterday to Scott Gottlieb, administrator of the Food and Drug Administration. The organization wants FDA to take a stronger stand on lead and other heavy metals in foods and beverages.

“… FDA has no specific limits in place to restrict contaminants in the vast majority of children’s food. With the agency’s own data and the work of Consumer Reports and other public interest groups in mind, it is critically important for the FDA to take the following additional steps to protect the public and assist parents nationwide,” the letter to Gottlieb states.

The steps the FDA should take, as outlined by Consumer Reports, are:

  • Establish aggressive targets. Because there are no established safe levels of heavy metals like lead, we urge the FDA to set a goal of having no measurable amounts of cadmium, lead, or inorganic arsenic in baby and children’s food — and to use the most sensitive testing methods to determine the presence of those elements.
  • Create and enforce benchmarks. To limit heavy metals in baby and children’s food, the FDA should set incremental targets for industry to meet along the way, while continually recognizing that the end goal must be always to have no measurable amounts. The agency also should insist that manufacturers meet strong, recognized best practices as described above.
  • Finalize proposed guidelines. By the end of 2018, the agency’s planned deadline, the FDA should finalize its guidances limiting inorganic arsenic in apple juice to 10 parts per billion (ppb), and limiting inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal to 100 ppb. Also, it should revise existing guidance for lead in fruit juice to reduce the limit from 50 ppb to 5 ppb, which is the standard for bottled water.

In addition to reviewing the levels of lead and other heavy metals in foods for infants and toddlers, Consumer Reports surveyed parents about the foods they serve to their children aged 3 and younger.

The survey of more than 3,000 people showed more than 9 out of 10 parents use the types of foods Consumer Reports tested at least occasionally. Half of the parents said they thought children’s foods are subject to more strict regulation and safety testing procedures than other packaged foods, but they aren’t, according to the watchdog organization.

Four out of 10 parents surveyed said they sometimes buy organic food for their children. They cited avoiding lead, arsenic, and other heavy metals as their primary reason.

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