Should I Worry About Lead in Baby Food?
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Over the last several years, there have been numerous reports of toxic heavy metals found in commercial baby food. Reports show that 95% of baby food tested is contaminated with dangerous metals, like lead. And in 2023 more than 250 children were thought to have consumed exceedingly high levels of lead from contaminated cinnamon applesauce pouches. Shockingly, samples tested by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) contained 200 times more lead than allowed in food. Scary stuff. So, what does that mean for how you feed your little one? We’ve unpacked the facts about lead in baby food—plus, how to keep your little one safe.
How does lead get into baby food?
Heavy metals, such as lead, arsenic, and mercury, often contaminate food by way of rainwater. The rain washes pollutants from factories, landfills, and farms into lakes and rivers. Next, these pollutants travel through the groundwater (or irrigation systems) to then contaminate crops or soil. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) notes that vitamins added to foods may contain lead, too. Heavy metal contamination can also occur during the manufacturing and packaging process. For example, lead can be present in the tanks used in international spice processing. (Outside of America, lead pigments are sometimes added to spices to improve their color or increase their weight.)
What foods are most likely to contain heavy metals?
While it’s possible for heavy metals like lead to be found in virtually any food, some baby and toddler foods have higher levels of heavy metals than others. These foods include:
Infant rice cereal
Infant rice puff snacks
Oat O’s cereal
Can lead in applesauce and baby food harm my baby?
Yes. While lead is toxic to everyone, children younger than 6 years old are at a greater risk for problems associated with heavy metal exposure. That’s because their little bodies absorb lead way more easily than bigger kids and grownups. Even low levels of lead exposure have been associated with learning and behavior problems, hearing and speech issues, and slowed growth and development, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Moreover, regularly consuming even small amounts of lead over a long stretch of time may increase one’s risk of certain cancers, type 2 diabetes, and more.
The ramifications of lead exposure are, for sure, worrisome, but experts urge parents not to panic. The lead content in baby food and toddler foods is concerning, but it’s not an imminent threat, note experts at Consumer Reports. Ultimately, lead-related issues depend on a variety of factors, including exposure over time, genetics, and contact with other sources of toxic heavy metals, like contaminated drinking water or lead paint.
While it’s accurate to say no amount of heavy metals such as lead is considered safe, it’s also true that making changes to your baby or toddler’s diet now can reduce the chance of negative outcomes down the road.
What are the symptoms of lead exposure?
The CDC reports that children often have no acute symptoms when exposed to lead. However, children who are exposed to a large amount of lead can develop lead poisoning.
Lead Exposure Symptoms
Severe neurological symptoms, including seizures or coma
What do I do if my child has been exposed to lead?
Again, don’t panic! If your child has eaten a recalled applesauce pouch—or another item flagged for high lead content—toss the offending food immediately and reach out to your pediatrician about getting a blood test for lead. If your provider determines that your child has lead poisoning—and it’s severe—they may recommend medicine to lower their blood lead levels. (PS: The CDC recommends all children get blood tests for lead exposure at ages 1 and 2.)
How can I reduce my baby’s exposure to heavy metals?
Right now, the FDA does have limits in place for the amount of arsenic allowed in infant rice cereals and apple juice…but not in other foods. And while the FDA did propose new limits for the amount of lead allowed in certain baby foods, they didn’t introduce any limit for puffs, teething biscuits, or other toddler food staples. Unfortunately, that means it’s up to caregivers to do a whole lot of heavy-metal gatekeeping. Though there’s no way for a parent to completely eliminate the risk of lead exposure through food, there are steps you can take to mitigate your child’s exposure.
Rethink rice cereal. Rice tends to absorb more arsenic from groundwater than other crops, so consider alternatives, like multi-grain, oat, barley, couscous, quinoa, farro, and bulgur infant cereals. (Learn more about rice cereal.)
Avoid other rice ingredients, too. AAP recommends steering clear of rice milk and brown rice syrup, which are sometimes used to sweeten processed toddler foods. (Read labels!)
Limit processed snacks. Since rice puffs and oat ring cereal are known to contain higher levels of heavy metals than other foods, whenever possible, feed your baby fresh foods instead.
Offer a variety of foods. Eating a variety of healthy, non-packaged foods that are rich in essential nutrients can work wonders for lowering a child’s exposure to heavy metals and other contaminants. (Don’t stop serving nutrient-rich sweet potatoes and carrots!)
Skip fruit juice. Fruit juice should not be given to any infants under 12 months old. Even after your tot turns 1, you should limit their consumption to no more than 4 to 6 ounces a day. Not only is juice high in sugar and less nutritious than whole fruit, but some fruit juices, like apple and grape, can contain concerning levels of heavy metals, according to the AAP. (Learn more about babies, toddlers, and juice.)
Choose this Many families enjoy serving rice with meals, and you still can. Simply keep in mind that basmati rice grown in California, India, and Pakistan have less arsenic than other rice, including brown rice, which has significantly more than white. And when you’re preparing rice, rinse it thoroughly before cooking, cook in plenty of water (6 to 10 parts water to 1 part rice), and drain the extra water when ready to help lower the amount of arsenic.
Skip teething biscuits. Instead, give your teething baby a cold teether or wet washcloth to gnaw on. (Learn more about what’s safe to offer your teething baby.)
Test your water. If your family drinks well water, your home has lead pipes, or if you see signs of decay (frequent leaks, rust colored water, stained dishes, stained laundry), test your water for lead. (If you scrape your pipes and see shiny silver, you likely have lead pipes. Plus, a magnet won’t stick to lead.)
Research your baby food. Come January 2025, baby food makers must post heavy metal test results for their products online, so you’ll be able to see exactly how much arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury is in your baby’s food.
More on Feeding Babies and Toddlers:
- The Benefits of Homemade Baby Food
- Fiber-Rich Foods for Babies and Toddlers
- Your Quick Start Guide to Homemade Baby Food
- Best Brain-Boosting Foods For Little Ones
Calcium-Rich Foods Babies and Toddlers Love
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP): Heavy Metals in Baby Food
- Healthy Babies Bright Futures: What’s in my Baby’s Food?
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Lead and Chromium Poisoning Outbreak Linked to Cinnamon Applesauce Pouches
- AAP: Should I worry about lead in my child’s cinnamon applesauce pouch?
- Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF): What Can Parents Do About Heavy Metals in Baby Food?
- The Nemours Foundation, KidsHealth: What Can Parents Do About Heavy Metals in Baby Food?
- The Nemours Foundation, KidsHealth: Lead Poisoning
- Consumer Reports: Heavy Metals in Baby Food: What You Need to Know
- CDC: Testing Children for Lead Poisoning
- Consumer Reports: Baby Foods Sold in California Will Have to Adhere to Strict New Rules for Lead and Other Heavy Metals
- HBBF: FDA’s New Closer to Zero Action Levels Won’t Get Us Closer to Zero
- AAP: Where We Stand: Fruit Juice for Children
- Arsenic in brown rice: do the benefits outweigh the risks? Frontiers in Nutrition. July 2023
- Green Bay Water Utility: How to Identify a Lead Water
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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.