According to a congressional report released today, many baby foods contain concerningly high levels of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead. This isn’t a new problem; Healthy Babies Bright Futures issued a report with similar findings in 2019, and the FDA has issued warnings about arsenic in rice cereal, like this one we reported on in 2016.
Fortunately, there are ways to limit your baby’s exposure to these foodborne toxic metals. Healthy Babies Bright Futures suggests five ways to do so—and three of them center around avoiding rice.
Rice tends to pick up naturally-occuring arsenic from the soil it is grown in. Buying organic rice won’t change that; high arsenic levels can occur in both organic and conventionally grown rice. Soil has more arsenic in some parts of the world than others; basmati rice grown in California, India, and Pakistan has the lowest levels. White rice tends to have less arsenic than brown rice. And boiling rice in extra water, then pouring off the excess, removes some of the arsenic.
So if you do nothing else, check for rice in baby foods (including organic brown rice syrup, used as a sweetener in many “healthy” snacks). Small amounts aren’t necessarily a problem, but try to avoid feeding your child a steady diet of rice cereal, rice puffs, and rice teething biscuits.
Here are the tips from Healthy Babies Bright Futures:
- Instead of snack puffs made with rice, choose packaged snacks made without rice, or give your baby other foods to snack on, like applesauce, bananas, and cheese. (Snack puffs weren’t a big thing when my kids were little, so we kept them busy with Cheerios.)
- Instead of rice cereal, choose infant cereals made with oats or other grains. You don’t have to feed your kid infant cereal at all, but pediatricians often recommend it because it’s fortified with iron. Your baby can get iron in other foods, like meats.
- Instead of teething biscuits, try giving your child a frozen banana, or try other classics like teething toys or a soaked-and-frozen washcloth.
- Instead of fruit juice, let kids drink water. Apple, pear, and grape juices tend to contain higher levels of toxic metals, and pediatricians already recommend that toddlers drink no more than half a cup of juice a day.
- Instead of carrots and sweet potatoes, feed kids a variety of vegetables. Carrot and sweet potato baby foods showed higher levels of lead and cadmium in Healthy Babies Bright Futures’ tests. Again, these vegetables are fine in small quantities, but they also tend to be popular flavors and kids’ favorites. Aim for variety instead.
While these tips will help, ultimately a bigger change is needed. The congressional report argues that companies should be required to test their finished products (not just their individual ingredients) for these toxic metals, and that the FDA should set limits for how much can be present. There are already limits for some other products, like water, the report points out:
These results are multiples higher than allowed under existing regulations for other products. For example, the Food and Drug Administration has set the maximum allowable levels in bottled water at 10 ppb inorganic arsenic, 5 ppb lead, and 5 ppb cadmium, and the Environmental Protection Agency has capped the allowable level of mercury in drinking water at 2 ppb. The test results of baby foods and their ingredients eclipse those levels: including results up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to 5 times the mercury level.
The congressional report also recommends the FDA require baby food manufacturers to label the amount of these metals present in food, and phase out ingredients like rice flour that are frequently high in toxic metals.