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“OMG, I poisoned my child when I fed him rice cereal!”
Maybe you, like me, saw the headlines of the new congressional report and had a fleeting thought that you wrecked your kid for the long-term because of what you fed your child when they were an infant. I mean, I did do a lot of rice cereal.
Parenting is agonizing, ya know?
The headlines about baby food are designed to strike fear in our hearts so we click and read articles.
I don’t think fear is necessary though. We can learn new information and creating a common sense strategy that doesn’t require fear.
I’m going to walk you through the 10 things you need to know here. What’s going on, why it’s news, and most importantly, exactly what you can do to make informed decisions for yourself.
1. Yes, there are toxic metals in baby food and it’s worth learning more
On Thursday, the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy released a staff report on the presence of heavy metals – arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury in commercial baby products (pouches, jars, teething biscuits, puffs, etc.). The report did not address infant formula.
No surprise, heavy metals are in baby food – sometimes in high amounts.
Why does it matter? Because there’s really no “safe” amount of heavy metals for babies or children. That means that small amounts may cause harm. Large amounts of course cause more pronounced harm.
Cue mama bears everywhere demanding answers.
The report itself is great in my opinion. It’s well referenced, not overly emotional, and only a little bit political. It makes common sense recommendations that are supported by data.
I’m not a fan of the way it is being marketed, however, using fear-based emotional videos and headlines to freak parents out.
Let’s just say no to fear-messages, okay?
So how do we listen without getting wrapped up in the fear.
2. Heavy metals in baby food is not a new issue
I dug around to find out when toxic metals in baby food came into mainstream awareness.
In 2012 Consumer Reports ran an analysis of arsenic in rice foods and juices. In fact, that year one baby formula company addressed arsenic in their baby formula head on and found some ways to reduce it to zero.
In 2015 Marion Nestle, the authority on food politics (and my public health crush), plainly said that infant rice cereal should be taken off the market. Although there was some talk about setting limits and trying to change manufacturing practices, nothing really changed as she summarized in 2018.
Fast forward to 2019, a bombshell (for parents) report was released talking about heavy metals in food and baby food. I did an interview with Business Insider about that report talking about how I did not appreciate the fear-mongering..
The 2019 report was about food that babies eat, including processed foods. The new congressional report is only about processed baby food.
3. Heavy metals are “allowed” in baby food because it’s complicated
Lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic are in our environment and in the ground. There are different amounts in different geographical locations.
Agricultural practices and different fertilizer use have contributed to heavy metals in the ground and some are naturally occurring.
Many plants absorb heavy metals as they grow, which is how heavy metals get in our food.
It’s not the only way though.
For example, cocoa beans have extremely low levels of naturally occurring lead in them, yet chocolate and cocoa powder can have high levels of lead in them. It is the processing and manufacturing that introduce lead into the cocoa.
Cadmium is naturally present in various soils throughout the country and is absorbed into plant-based foods during growing. Additionally, cadmium is added to foods through galvanized and cadmium-plated equipment, glazed pottery, and cadmium stabilized plastics.
The new congressional report also had data showing that some ingredients in processed foods such as amylase (an enzyme for texture) and vitamin/mineral supplement mix, add additional heavy metals to processed baby foods.
Plus, new information was released in the congressional report that suggested the manufacturing processes themselves contribute more heavy metals to baby food, although we do not have much information on this.
4. It’s not easy to remove heavy metals from food
You’d think we could easily remove heavy metals from foods, but it’s not that easy.
There are some chemical methods of reducing mercury in some foods, and in some instances cooking/jarring can reduce heavy metals, but it’s a lot harder to do than you think.
That company I mentioned before that was able to reduce arsenic in their baby formula had to find a new low-arsenic rice variety to use, make their own brown rice syrup, and develop a patented (or patent-pending) method for getting arsenic out of the brown rice syrup. No small feat for a small company. Also, it’s unknown if what they did would be possible on a large scale.
All of the reports – the congressional one, the 2019 baby food report, and many peer-reviewed articles, all make the same recommendations to companies:
- Find a new source of the food that has less heavy metals
- Stop including ingredients where a low heavy metal source can’t be found
- Perform complicated chemical chelation (for mercury-containing foods)
- Change equipment to equipment that doesn’t cause heavy metal contamination
This sounds good, except that this means some of society’s favorite baby foods or food features would no longer be available. Vitamin mixes, cinnamon, cocoa powder, cumin, rice, and juice aren’t always things that families or companies want to give up.
5. It is unlikely that any brand of baby food is free from heavy metals
There is no mandatory testing or reporting of heavy metals in baby food, so we don’t have a lot of good information.
Think about it though.
If a company did have zero heavy metals you can be sure they would be shouting it from the rooftops. Wouldn’t most people switch to that brand? It would be a huge advantage to them.
I would venture a guess that ALL baby food has heavy metals in it because 1) no company is saying they are heavy metal-free, and 2) food comes from the ground where the heavy metals are.
6. Organic and conventionally grown foods are grown in the ground
One of the great marketing achievements of the organic label is to make people think that “organic” = “nothing bad.” Which is not accurate.
Organic is a way of growing food and using certain chemicals and not others.
In this case, organic food still grows in the ground, where the heavy metals are, the food is still processed, and organic additives can still add heavy metals.
The congressional report looked at organic and non-organic brands, and all had heavy metals.
7. We don’t have data that compares children who eat processed foods versus children who do not
I received many messages saying “I’m so glad I did baby led weaning!” or “I’m so glad I only fed my child real food.”
The congressional report was about processed baby food, which makes it seem like this issue is only relevant to processed baby food. It simply does not compare processed and unprocessed baby food. The 2019 report about foods that babies eat, however, gives us the “joyous” news that heavy metals are in all the foods babies commonly eat.
That report was nice enough to further scare the crap out of us parents by tellings us that rice dishes including with bean and veggies, sweet potatoes, carrots, milk, juice, formula, O’s cereal, cereal bars, mac and cheese, puffs, bottled water, and fruit yogurt all have heavy metals.
And if that wasn’t enough good news for one day, the top deliverers of cadmium to the diet are spinach, lettuce, sunflower seeds, potato chips, and wheat cereal.
At this point, I hope you laugh a long with me. The metals are in a LOT of foods.
Is it possible that processed baby food has more heavy metal contaminants than non-processed foods? Yes. It’s possible and likely based on the small amount of information we have in the congressional report. Just remember, we don’t have enough data to know for certain.
Keep in mind though, we have NO data whatsoever on the difference in babies who eat non-processed foods and the babies who eat processed baby foods. That data does not exist. Anyone who claims that (or says “Baby Led Weaning means less heavy metals for your baby”), is not being honest about what we know.
We don’t have side-by-side comparisons of homemade purees, homemade finger foods, and processed baby food. So we have no idea how much higher the heavy metal levels might be in processed foods versus unprocessed foods.
For all we know, homemade baby food may have higher exposures to spices or seasonings or foods that we didn’t realize had high levels of heavy metals. We just don’t know because no one has done that study.
Should you throw out your pouches and jars of baby food? I wouldn’t. There are many reasons that families choose to use pouches and jars, and those reasons are still valid.
Some families may also choose to explore making more baby food at home, which is also valid.
If you’re looking for an easy way to make baby food – I personally think the hand baby food grinder is the most underutilized tool in feeding babies the easy way. You sit at the table, take some food off your plate, maybe add a little liquid, and grind it up. Voila, a textured puree-ish baby food that took you 30 seconds to make.
Starting with or moving kids to table foods is also valid. In general, I recommend moving kids to table food as quickly as possible to help them develop good eating skills and avoid some aspects of picky eating.
8. We do not have to live in fear over this news about heavy metals.
Let’s step back for one second. Between all these reports, plus the headlines about pesticides on foods, processed meat being carcinogenic, eggs being the same as cigarettes, animal foods being “bad”, grains being “bad”, sugar being “bad”…. There’s not much left to eat, right?
Plus we set ourselves up for judging other people (the number of parents mom-shamed this week for using baby food jars is out of control) and feeling too much stress.
It’s okay to let off a little anxious steam and have a laugh at how silly we are. Turns out every single food has a dark side.
Variety is the best medicine.
Getting ourselves worked up over the latest food scare is not worth it.
Remember, not feeding your child is the most damaging thing you can do to your child. Food gives us life.
Does this mean we say it doesn’t matter, that none of this information is useful?
I don’t think so. New information can help us. We’ve learned the heavy metals are high, and that we may have better health if we reduce them. That’s great news! There’s some room for improvement as a society (as there always is).
9. The common sense, non-fear-based approach
There are two overarching recommendations.
First, variety, variety, variety. Since each food has a dark side and a bright side, the more different foods you eat, the more you spread out your risk. If you need help with this, my free veggie exposure shopping list can help you think of more foods that you can include in your meal plan.
Second, make some changes when it comes to rice. Choose oat cereal instead of rice cereal for babies and try to avoid processed rice snacks for babies (like teething biscuits, rice rusks, and puffs).
Additionally, cook your rice in a ratio of 1 part rice to 6-10 parts water, and drain off the excess water. This can reduce the arsenic in rice by 40-60%. You can also use a coffee percolator to make rice! White rice also has less arsenic than brown rice.
There are some other interesting things you can do to help your child not absorb or metabolize heavy metals as much.
Feed kids 4-6 times a day, as lead absorption increases on an empty stomach. Additionally, calcium, iron, and vitamin C block the absorption of lead. This guide about lead poisoning prevention is great.
Feed kids a diet rich in zinc, iron, and calcium to help prevent the absorption of cadmium.
Feed kids a diet rich in protein, folate, and Vitamin B6 to help prevent the absorption of arsenic.
Reduce intake of high mercury fish.
Do something more
Finally, if this is bugging you, call your congressional representative. Ask for manufacturing standards. Ask for manufacturing transparency and more data. Ask congress to stand up for you and your child.
Also, stop buying any products that you don’t want to support anymore. Vote with your money and tell companies what you want from them.
10. 5 classic recommendations and 1 new recommendation for feeding babies and kids
Funny story, my recommendations for feeding kids don’t change much based on this report or any of the others. Here are the recommendations:
Feed your kids the widest variety of food you have access to.
If you need help with an easy meal plan that includes a variety of fruits, veggies, grains, and proteins, Real Easy Weekdays may be a good fit for your family.
Feed your kids routinely, usually 3 meals and 1-3 snacks a day.
A meal routine helps them be hungry for nutrient-rich meals, but not have completely empty stomachs.
See if you can reduce processed snacks.
I used some processed baby snacks and I expect most parents will. Puffs are super expensive and low-nutrient though and I think there’s good evidence that we want to see less heavy metals in them. Swapping in cooked frozen peas or a shredded apple can be a lot cheaper than puffs (although not as convenient).
Serve balanced meals from all foods groups.
My favorite balanced snacks include protein, fat, energy food, and a fruit/veggie. This helps kids get all the nutrients they need to block some of the absorption of heavy metals.
This has already been a recommendation for a long time – delay juice until 2 if possible and minimize after that. We minimize juice to protect teeth, leave room for food, and more. Turns out this is also a best practice for reducing exposure to heavy metals.
New best practice – choose less rice-based snacks and cereal for kids, and prepare rice differently.
Choose baby oat cereal instead of rice cereal and choose snacks that aren’t based on rice. Cook rice in excess water 6-10x the amount of rice, and pour off the excess to reduce arsenic exposure.
Choosing to let fear go
It’s true, every once in a while I get wrapped up in a fear-based headline and wonder if I’ve poisoned my child, but then I take a step back and look at the big picture: feeding my child is good and I can feel good about it. I can tweak a few things if I choose and let the fear go.