Many of you have likely heard about a report from the U.S. House of Representatives released in February regarding the safety of baby and toddler foods. Since this report came out, I’ve had several questions from parents about the safety of the food we usually recommend when starting to advance babies’ diets.
While there are still unanswered questions, both the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the American Academy of Pediatrics have issued statements on the report over the past month, so I felt this was a good time to recap what we know and what we still are learning regarding heavy metals in foods.
Before we go any further, let’s review what we know. In 2019, a House subcommittee began an investigation into how baby food companies protect their products from heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury, which can be damaging to brain development. As part of its probe, the subcommittee requested internal documents from the top food companies.
The findings, published on Feb. 4, confirmed high levels of heavy metals in most of the top commercial baby food brands, with some companies refusing to contribute the requested data.
The findings weren’t significant enough to recommend recalling the food, but they did prompt the subcommittee to request a more thorough investigation from the FDA. The report is available at tinyurl.com/babyfoodreport.
The FDA issued statements in response to the report. The agency also conducted its own research. At this time, the FDA has not found any reason to believe young children are at any immediate risk of toxic exposures in food. While it reassures families the baby foods available should be safe, the agency also plans to take additional steps to make sure formula and baby food are as safe as possible.
In a statement in March, the American Academy of Pediatrics strongly encouraged the FDA to work with the U.S. Department of Agriculture to limit potentially toxic exposures in baby food and ensure food safety.
While these reports and statements are encouraging and show a commitment to keeping food safe, they don’t help parents much right now as they try to determine what’s safe for their kids.
One thing to remember is that the levels of heavy metals found in baby food are most likely low compared to the overall toxic metal exposure risk.
Beyond that, there are simple steps that parents can take to help reduce potential exposure to heavy metals:
• Instead of giving kids only rice cereal, parents can offer a variety of grains and cereals once children are old enough
• A wide variety of fruits and vegetables can help prevent heavy metal exposure from any one single food
• Multi-ingredient baby food blends are great, and parents can also puree their own fruits and vegetables
• Some fruit juices can contain heavy metals, so it’s best to avoid them and stick with whole or pureed fruits instead
Currently, there’s no need to test children for heavy metal exposure, other than routine lead testing for at-risk kids. There’s also no reason to avoid any specific food brands at this time. For now, continue offering a wide variety of foods while the FDA conducts additional research and finalizes its recommendations.
Dr. Laura Shefner writes about pediatric care for the Cleveland Jewish News. She is a pediatrician at The MetroHealth System and practices in Beachwood and Parma.