Making baby food at home with store-bought produce isn’t going to reduce the amount of toxic heavy metals in the food your baby eats, according to a new report released exclusively to CNN.
“We found no evidence to suggest that homemade baby foods made from store-bought produce are better than store-bought baby foods when it comes to heavy metal contamination,” said the paper’s coauthor Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures. An alliance of nonprofits, scientists and donors, HBBF, which produced the report, has a stated mission of reducing babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals.
Researchers tested 288 foods bought at stores and farmers markets across the United States – including grains, fruits, vegetables, snacks, teething foods, and family items that babies eat, such as cereals and rice cakes – for lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. Those heavy metals are among the World Health Organization’s top 10 chemicals of concern for infants and children.
“Toxic metal exposure can be harmful to the developing brain. It’s been linked with problems with learning, cognition, and behavior,” according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Researchers also pored over data from 7,000 additional food tests reported in published studies and by the US Food and Drug Administration.
Results showed 94% of manufactured baby foods, family foods and homemade purees made from purchased raw foods contained detectable amounts of one or more heavy metals.
Lead was found in 90% of manufactured baby food bought by shoppers for the report and 80% of store-bought family food and homemade purees. There is no safe level of lead, according to the AAP.
Arsenic was found in 68% store-bought baby food and 72% of family food either purchased or prepared at home. Cadmium was found in 65% of purchased baby food and 60% of family foods, and mercury was in 7% of store-bought baby food and 10% of family foods. (The highest levels of mercury are found in seafood, which was not tested in this analysis.)
The new report is a follow-up to a November 2019 report in which Healthy Babies, Bright Futures tested 168 foods purchased from major baby food manufacturers. That analysis found 95% of store-bought baby food contained lead, 73% contained arsenic, 75% contained cadmium and 32% contained mercury. One-fourth of the foods tested that year contained all four heavy metals.
“After that report we saw so many people saying you can get around this problem by making your own baby food at home, so we decided to check,” Houlihan said. “We suspected we’d find heavy metals in all kinds of food because they’re ubiquitous contaminants in the environment.
“And that is exactly what we found – heavy metals were in foods from every section of the store,” Houlihan said. “What this says is that as the FDA is setting standards for heavy metals in baby food, they need to go beyond the baby food aisle.”
What’s a parent or caregiver to do? Feed baby with as many different types of foods as possible, said pediatrician Dr. Mark Corkins, chair of the Committee on Nutrition of the American Academy of Pediatrics. He was not involved in the study.
“If you spread foods out, and offer a wide variety of options, you’ll have less toxicity,” Corkins said. “And nutritionally that’s always been the right thing to do to get the most micronutrients from the food you eat.”
Does buying organic help?
The report found buying organic didn’t lower heavy metal levels either, which was “not shocking or surprising,” said Corkins, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
“It’s the soil and water that’s contaminated with arsenic and other heavy metals, so it doesn’t matter if it’s organic or traditional farming methods,” Corkins said. That would apply to locally grown crops or even backyard gardens, if the soil had not been verified to be metal-free.
However, buying organic can help avoid other toxins the new report did not consider, such as herbicides and pesticides, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health. He was not involved in the study.
“There are other benefits to eating organic food, including a reduction in synthetic pesticides that are known to be as bad for babies, if not even more problematic,” Trasande said.
“We’ve seen multiple studies show significant effects of synthetic pesticides on cognitive function in children as a result of prenatal exposure. We’ve seen images of the brain where certain parts are smaller that are crucial for higher order functioning after exposure,” he added. “A simple step would simply be to say eat organic because regardless of anything we’re talking about in this report, it’s good for you.”
Experts agree that battling toxins in baby foods is a job for government organizations who will need to work with growers, suppliers and manufacturers to institute regulations and safeguards. In the meantime, parents can make a difference.
“Making even one simple choice every day to lower a child’s exposure will make a difference, whether that’s staying away from rice-based snacks and serving a diced apple instead or choosing not to serve carrots and sweet potatoes every day,” Houlihan said.
“With heavy metals and other toxins the risks add up over a lifetime,” she added. “So even if some of these foods had been served to a child up to their second birthday, starting from there to lower exposure to toxins is going to add up. Every choice matters.”
Least contaminated foods
Tested foods with low metal content contain one-eighth as much heavy metal contamination as foods with the highest levels, Houlihan said. These are foods that can be “eaten freely,” the report suggested.
Fresh bananas, with heavy metal levels of 1.8 parts per billion, were the least contaminated of foods tested for the report. That’s an “82-fold difference in average level of total heavy metals” from the most contaminated food, rice cakes, which tested at 147 parts per billion, according to the investigation.
After bananas, the least contaminated foods were grits, manufactured baby food meats, butternut squash, lamb, apples, pork, eggs, oranges and watermelon, in that order. Other foods with lower levels of contamination included green beans, peas, cucumbers, and soft or pureed home-cooked meats, the report found.
Infant formula made with lead-free tap water was recommended. Tap water that has been tested and is free of lead is always a good choice. Milk is also a good choice, but only for babies 12 months and older.
Some healthy lower-metal foods, such as yogurt, unsweetened applesauce, beans, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and grapes that have been cut lengthwise, were good choices for snacks for babies, according to the report.
Fresh and frozen fruit – including those used in homemade purees – were options as well. But don’t use canned fruits if you can avoid it: “Tests find lead 30 times more often in canned fruit than in fresh and frozen fruit,” the report stated.
Parents and caregivers can also lower their baby’s exposure to heavy metals by making some smart substitutions, the report said.
Using a frozen banana for a teething baby instead of a rice-based teething biscuit or rice rusk could lower total intake of heavy metals by 95%, according to the report. Another suggested teething aid: peeled and chilled cucumber spears.