The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), a non-profit group, analyzed FDA data and found that lead was detected in 20 percent of baby food samples versus 14 percent for other foods. Baby food versions of carrots, as well as apple and grape juice made for babies, also had more samples with detectable lead levels than non-baby versions.
Lead, which is toxic to a child's developing brain, was most commonly found in root vegetables including sweet potatoes and carrots, cookies including arrowroot cookies and teething biscuits, and fruit juices including grape, mixed fruit, apple, and pear. Of all kinds of baby food, cereal had the lowest rate of lead detection.
It's important to note that none of the samples had lead amounts higher than the FDA's allowable levels—and some had no detectable levels at all. The FDA has been monitoring the amount of lead in food for decades and reports that the vast majority of foods analyzed between 2005-2013 (88 percent) had levels too low to even be identified.
But the EDF says the FDA needs to update the allowable limits based on the current science showing there is no safe blood level of lead. Others agree. "The FDA limits are decades old and don't reflect what we know now," says Jennifer Lowry, MD, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Council on Environmental Health and Chief of Medical Toxicology at Children's Mercy Kansas City. "It's now recognized that lead is more toxic than we thought."
According to the AAP, even low-level exposure to lead is a risk factor for decreased IQ and academic ability and for behavioral problems such as hyperactivity, aggression, and inattention. Lead's effects on the brain are permanent.
The EDF says lead may be finding its way in to foods from a few sources: Plants can absorb it from contaminated soil and water. The mineral may leach into food via lead-containing food processing equipment. Food may also come in contact with lead-based paint in buildings during handling.
The group is calling on the FDA and food manufacturers to better address this issue. They also suggest that parents reach out to their favorite brands and ask them whether they regularly test for lead. In a newly released statement, Gerber says it regularly checks its water quality and tests foods and beverages "to ensure they fall well within all available guidance levels from the FDA".
But for now, the best defense is to simply feed your child a variety of foods—and don't avoid healthy fruits and vegetables because of the report, says Lowry. For example, though sweet potatoes and carrots were singled out, those veggies also pack lots of good nutrition. So continue to serve them but offer lots of other kinds of veggies too. Following the AAP's new guidelines for juice will help reduce exposure too: Don't serve juice to babies younger than one and limit portions for toddlers and beyond.
Keep in mind that making your own baby food doesn't erase the risk, notes Lowry, since there's no way to know if the fresh fruits and veggies you buy at the store contain lead (if you grow your own produce, you can have your soil tested for the mineral). Buying all organic doesn't either; according to the report, lead has been detected in organic foods as well as conventional.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author ofThe 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.