When a landmark report in 2019 uncovered high levels of heavy metals in store-bought baby food, parents everywhere were outraged. A congressional report in 2021 had similar findings. The FDA launched its Closer to Zero initiative soon after, but missed its first commitment this past spring. Parents have been left to their own devices: either having to accept the risk that comes with buying baby food off the shelves, or resorting to make their own—but whipping up homemade baby food isn’t an accessible option for all, either. 

And now, a startling new report led by Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) shows that going the DIY route is sadly no safer when it comes to purees and other baby finger foods—heavy metals are present there, too, at exactly the same rates found in store-bought foods. 

The HBBF report, released today, discovered that 94% of store-bought baby food and 94% of homemade purees and family foods all have detectable levels of toxic heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium. 

The findings are disheartening, and prove that heavy metals are everywhere in our environment—in the food itself. That makes them impossible to avoid, even if you buy organic, even if you buy from the farmer’s market, even if you make your own food at home. But all is not lost. Read on to find out what experts recommend for feeding your baby and reducing exposure. 

Report finds high levels of heavy metals in homemade baby food

After testing 288 different foods, including common baby-friendly foods like sweet potatoes, carrots, bananas and those beloved rice puffs, as well as examining the results from more than 7,000 additional food tests from previously published studies, the researchers “found no evidence to suggest that homemade purees and family brands are generally safer, with lower metal levels, than store-bought baby food.” You can read the full report here.

As a resource for parents, HBBF has created a fact sheet featuring 40 foods to serve, limit, or avoid to reduce babies’ exposure to heavy metals. For developing brains, even low levels of exposure to lead, arsenic, mercury or cadmium can be harmful, impacting cognition, learning and behavior, notes the American Academy of Pediatrics.

"After that [2019] 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," says the paper's coauthor Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures, to CNN. "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," says Houlihan. "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."

How do heavy metals get into baby food?

Heavy metals abound in our natural environment as they're formed in the earth's crust, but they can also be released as a result of pollution. They can leach into baby food made from fruits and vegetables that have been grown in tainted water and soil, which can be hard to avoid without regular testing.

Metals can also get into food through manufacturing, processing and packaging processes, or when manufacturers add enzymes or vitamin and mineral blends to foods that may already be tainted. It's important that baby food companies routinely test all ingredients before and after processing to determine where the toxins are coming from—but today’s report highlights the fact that toxins are likely originating from the food itself. 

If you’re wondering if buying organic produce would help reduce the risk, the answer is unfortunately no, experts say. While organic foods have lower levels of pesticides and herbicides (which can also be harmful for developing brains), organic produce is grown in the same contaminated soil and water as conventionally grown produce, so there’s no true protective effect. 

What are the most heavily contaminated foods?

According to the HBBF report, the 10 most heavily contaminated foods consumed by babies, beginning with the highest, are: 

  • Rice cakes
  • Crisped rice cereal
  • Rice-based puffs
  • Brown rice
  • Rice-based teething biscuits and rusks
  • White rice
  • Raisins
  • Teething crackers (non-rice)
  • Granola bars with raisins
  • Oat-ring cereal

The 10 least contaminated foods consumed by babies, beginning with the lowest, are: 

  • Bananas
  • Grits
  • Baby food brand meats
  • Butternut squash
  • Lamb
  • Apples
  • Pork
  • Eggs
  • Oranges
  • Watermelon

Rice-based and especially brown rice-based foods have been found to be so heavily contaminated with metals (primarily arsenic) that the report authors recommend avoiding them altogether. Parents should skip all crisped rice cereals, rice-based puffs, rice cakes and brown rice prepared with no extra cooking water (cooking brown rice with the pasta-cooking method can help reduce arsenic content). 

Image via https://www.healthybabyfoods.org/

So what can parents do? 

If you’ve relied on any of these foods to feed your little one, don’t panic. "The issue is a chronic exposure issue, not an acute exposure issue," Chief Scientific Officer for Consumer Reports, James H Dickerson, previously explained to Motherly. "Chronic exposure means long-term exposure over months and years of repeated exposure. Acute exposure means a single time, or five times or 10 times of exposure, consuming these foods would lead to a risk. That's not the case at all."

Now, the name of the game is variety. It’s the mix of foods that matters—not who made it. Feed your baby with as many different types of foods as possible, says pediatrician Dr. Mark Corkins, chair of the Committee on Nutrition of the American Academy of Pediatrics, to CNN. He was not involved in the study. "If you spread foods out, and offer a wide variety of options, you'll have less toxicity," Dr. Corkins says. "And nutritionally that's always been the right thing to do to get the most micronutrients from the food you eat."

Start by swapping out foods that are likely the highest sources of heavy metals, but know that your best bet is serving a wide variety of fruits and vegetables daily to avoid accidental contamination due to overexposure of the same few foods.

"Our recommendation is for balance, balance, balance," says Dickerson. "What that means is that you should feed your children a balance of grains, a balance of fruits and vegetables, a balance of proteins."

Which baby foods should you serve or skip?

Here’s a short list of what to serve, limit and avoid when offering your infant food. HBBF’s parent guide has more details: The Data-Driven Guide to Healthy Baby Food, and be sure to reach out to your pediatrician for more guidance.

  • Avoid any baby food products made with rice, including white or brown rice, rice milk, brown rice syrup or other rice products, as brown rice is a primary source of inorganic arsenic based on the way it's grown.
  • Avoid any baby cereals made with rice, opting for oats, barley or mixed grains instead.
  • Avoid puffed rice snacks, rusks and teethers.
  • Only rarely serve dried fruit, especially raisins.
  • Limit or rotate canned fruit, opting for fresh or frozen fruit instead.
  • Limit or rotate cantaloupe and leafy greens like baby spinach. Avoid serving full-grown spinach.
  • Avoid serving grape juice.
  • Avoid serving peanut butter every day. Limit serving sunflower seed butter, which is high in cadmium.
  • Limit or rotate root vegetables and tubers, like sweet potatoes, carrots and beets, and peel them before cooking to remove potential contaminants on the surface. “We recommend that parents vary the source by choosing from different brands, varieties, or stores each week to avoid accidentally serving a high-metal source often,” note the report authors.
  • Advocate for change. Reach out to your representatives and government agencies to take stricter action and support stronger limits on heavy metals in food.

Experts agree that policing baby food should fall to the government, not to parents and caregivers. But until that large-scale change can happen, it’s the choices you make every day in your kitchen that count. 

“Parents shouldn’t have to worry about the safety of their babies’ meals and snacks,” Houlihan and her co-authors write. “They shouldn’t need to wonder if they have served carrots or spinach too many days in a row, or guess if nutrient loss from boiling and peeling is an acceptable price for heavy metal reduction. This is a complex problem and will require a multi-pronged solution for both our kitchens and our country.”

But until the FDA sets more protective limits—and meets them—the burden will fall to parents to offer more variety and swap out certain foods to limit their children's toxic chemical exposures.