The Consumer Reports food safety team acquired 50 nationally distributed packaged food catered to babies and toddlers. Brands included Beech-Nut, Gerber, Baby Mum-Mum, Earth’s Best, Ella’s Kitchen, Happy Baby, Parent’s Choice (Walmart), Plum Organics, and Sprout. The team tested these products for cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic, according to their article about the topic. Here’s a breakdown of the results:
Every packaged food contained at least one of the heavy metals cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead—and contamination levels were “worrisome” in 68% of products.
Of the 50 products tested, 15 are considered health risks “to a child regularly eating just one serving or less per day.”
Heavy metal contamination was highest in products containing rice and sweet potato.
The most concerning products were “snack foods,” defined as bars, cookies, crackers, crunches, crisps, puffs, and teething biscuits.
The Clean Label Project released similar results in their 2017 food study. 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:
About 65 percent of baby food products contained some arsenic.
Thirty-six percent of baby food samples had detectable levels of lead.
Sixty percent of the products labeled "BPA Free" tested positive for BPA.
Baby food labeled "certified organic" had higher levels of arsenic than conventional (but lower levels of pesticide residues).
Using the findings, the Clean Label Project 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 five-star 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.
The heavy metals tested in these studies—cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic—are harmful in any amount. Lead is toxic to children's brains, and no amount has been deemed safe. Arsenic and mercury are also neurotoxins. Infants and young children are particularly sensitive these contaminants, since their brains and organ systems aren’t fully developed.
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According to Consumer Reports, “Exposure to even small amounts of these heavy metals at an early age may increase the risk of several health problems, especially lower IQ and behavior problems, and have been linked to autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.” Unfortunately, these effects are long-lasting and irreversible, as the contaminants have been linked to “bladder, lung, and skin cancer; cognitive and reproductive problems; and type 2 diabetes, among other conditions” when consumed over a long period of time, says Consumer Reports.
Before you panic, it's important to note a few things: For starters, Clean Label Project and Consumer Reports didn’t release their actual data—they distilled it into their studies 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 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. "Just because you test positive for something doesn't mean it's a high amount that will cause harm."
The Clean Label Project 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.
In fact, after the Clean Label Project released their findings last year, some companies responded. 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 these 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.