The Scoop on Food

A New Study Finds Contaminants in Formula & Baby Food. Don't Panic, But Here's What You Need to Know

A non-profit group warns of lead, arsenic, and other toxins in products for babies and toddlers. Time to panic? Probably not. 

Green Puree Baby Food With Baby Toys ziashusha/shutterstock
A non-profit organization called Clean Label Project just released findings from a study showing contaminants such as arsenic, lead, and mercury in leading brands of infant formula and baby foods.

The organization purchased 500 infant formulas, baby foods, baby cereals, pouches, and toddler drinks and snacks from 60 different brands and had them tested at a third-party lab for more than 130 contaminants including heavy metals, antibiotics, pesticides, and BPA.

Among their findings:

  • More than 50 percent of infant formulas contained some arsenic.
  • More than a quarter of baby food samples had detectable levels of lead.
  • More than half of the products labeled "BPA Free" tested positive for BPA.
  • Baby food labeled "certified organic" had higher levels of mercury than conventional (but lower levels of pesticide residues).
  • Rice-based "puff" snacks contained more than five times as much arsenic as other baby snacks.

A study earlier this year revealed the presence of lead in baby food. Lead is toxic to children's brains, and no amount has been deemed safe. Arsenic and mercury are also neurotoxins. "Clearly we don't want these contaminants in foods for babies because they're still developing," says Jennifer Lowry, M.D., Chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health and Chief of Medical Toxicology at Children's Mercy Kansas City. "Any toxin that interferes with development can have lifelong consequences."

Using the findings, the group assigned star ratings to each product tested (one star for the worst in terms of contaminants, five stars for the best) and published the lists on their website. Their highest-rated products are a mix of both organic brands and conventional. For instance, their top five brands of baby formula include Baby's Only Dairy Organic Non-GMO Toddler Formula as well as Enfamil Enspire Milk Based Powder Infant Formula With Iron.

But before you panic, it's important to note a few things: For starters, Clean Label Project is not releasing the actual data—they've distilled it into their ratings, key points, and an infographic instead—so it's impossible to know the exact levels of each contaminant found or how solid the research is. "Without looking at the data or seeing a good, peer-reviewed study, I don't know how accurate it is," says Lowry. "Just because you test positive for something doesn't mean it's a high amount that will cause harm."

The group has also been criticized for linking their ranked list to Amazon and collecting a small commission from the sales of highly-rated products, which could be construed as a conflict of interest. (For their part, the group says it's simply a way to raise funds for their non-profit organization.)

Also, remember that (unfortunately) these contaminants exist in the environment—so the idea that you could eat a contaminant-free diet or buy products devoid of any contaminant is just not feasible, says Lowry. Foods take up metals like lead and arsenic from the soil and water and can also become contaminated during storage, processing, or transport. (Making your own baby food doesn't mean you're in the clear, since even fresh produce can have these contaminants too.)

But these findings may spur manufacturers to do more testing and change practices to get levels down. "We hope this is a wake-up call for brands and parents," says Jackie Bowen, executive director of Clean Label Project. They encourage consumers to call their favorite brands to ask if they test their products (and what they test them for). They also call on manufacturers to set stricter quality standards and better testing.

Some brands are already responding to the findings. In a statement on their website, Gerber says, "We want to reassure parents that the health and safety of babies is our number one priority, which is why we never compromise on the quality of our formulas and foods for babies and toddlers. All Gerber foods meet or exceed U.S. government standards for quality and safety."

So, as always, do your research and reach out to companies if you have questions. But, remember to take this study (and all single studies) with a grain of salt...or a spoonful of pureed peas.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.