A report in February from the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform said commercial baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.
The report was based on information from just four companies that make baby food: Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain and Gerber. Arsenic, lead and cadmium were found in baby foods from all of the companies. Mercury was found in the food from the only company that tested for it (Nurture). Three other companies (Walmart, Sprout Organic Foods and Campbell) were asked to provide the same information about their baby food products, and they didn’t.
Dr. Claire McCarthy in the Harvard Health Blog states that’s just part of the problem: This is just one report, with limited information. It’s hard to know exactly what it means about commercial baby foods in general, but it’s a report we need to take seriously because all four of these heavy metals can affect the developing brain. And when you harm the brain as it develops, the damage can be permanent.
Metals are found naturally in the Earth. They’re also released into our environment as pollution and get into our water and soil. Organic baby food may have less pesticides but similar levels of heavy metals as the non-organic foods.
The Food and Drug Administration is working on doing better monitoring and regulation of heavy metals in commercial baby foods. In the meantime, it’s nearly impossible to know which are safe and which aren’t safe.
Babies don’t need solid foods until 6 months of age. At that time, it’s perfectly fine to give them soft table foods instead of baby foods. You also can make your own baby food, using steamed or naturally soft foods and a blender. (Storage tip: You can pour a homemade puree into an ice cube tray and freeze it, and then just grab the cubes you need each time.)
The American Academy of Pediatrics has suggestions for families to help decrease their children’s exposure to heavy metals in their food and drink:
• Give your child a wide variety of different foods (the more natural colors, the better).
• Vary the grains. It’s best to limit rice and rice products (check labels — rice is in many foods marketed for babies, like “puffs”). Try barley, oats and other grains. When cooking rice, it’s best to cook it in extra water and drain that water off, and to use white basmati and sushi rice, which have less arsenic.
• Check your water. Old pipes can contain lead, which can leach into drinking water.
• Avoid fruit juices. Not only can they increase the risk of cavities and obesity, but many commercial juices also contain heavy metals.
• Make healthy fish choices. Fish contains nutrients that are healthy for the developing brain, but some fish can contain unhealthy amounts of mercury. Stay clear of big, predatory, long-living fish like swordfish, shark or albacore tuna. It’s better to choose fish like cod, light tuna, salmon or pollock.
Sally Robinson is a clinical professor of pediatrics at UTMB Children’s Hospital. This column isn’t intended to replace the advice of your child’s physician.