This week many parents were left questioning the contents of their cupboards when new information from Consumer Reports sparked a flurry of headlines about heavy metals in packaged baby food.
Parents are understandably worried after learning cadmium, lead, and inorganic arsenic are present in those little jars and pouches, but the Chief Scientific Officer for Consumer Reports, James H Dickerson, tells Motherly the study was meant to inform citizens, not freak us out.
"Don't panic. The issue is a chronic exposure issue, not an acute exposure issue," he explains. "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."
Consumer Reports tested 50 popular ready-made baby food products for heavy metals, and every product had measurable levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead. According to Dickinson, what makes those test results worrisome is that 68% correspond to elevated levels of potential risk for cancer development, neurological problems or respiratory problems.
That doesn't mean that your child is going to get sick from eating a jar of baby food, but it does mean that, in some cases, (like with sweet potatoes or rice-based cereals and baby snacks) parents should serve the foods in moderation, and mix in other kind of grains, veggies and protiens as much as possible.
"Having a variety goes a long way to help mitigate this issue and ensure your children grow up happy, healthy and safe," he tells Motherly.
A call to action
Consumer Reports is calling on baby food manufacturers to take a long hard look at their supply chains when making food for growing babies and kids, in addition to stricter policies and controls to prevent contamination during the manufacturing process.
"If they are very vigilant about making sure the food they source already has very low levels of these heavy elements, that goes a long way to increasing the probability that the final product, the final food ends up having low levels," he explains, adding that Consumer Reports also has some ideas for the FDA.
"The first one is to set very clear goals for manufacturers to have absolutely no measurable levels of the heavy elements in any baby food, any toddler food at all. That's an ambitious goal, so to help manufacturers get to that goal, we'd like the FDA to set very clear benchmarks along that pathway to that goal and then enforce those benchmarks," Dickerson explains.
"Lastly, there are currently pending, agreed upon guidelines that the FDA is considering that we would like them to finalize by the end of 2018," he notes. Those guidelines would limit the amount of inorganic arsenic acceptable in infant cereal and fruit juices.
In a statement emailed to Motherly an FDA spokesperson explains: "Toxic elements are naturally occurring so it is not possible to remove or completely prevent arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury from entering the food supply, but our goal at FDA is to limit consumer exposure, especially in children, to the greatest extent feasible."
The FDA says it welcomes the data from Consumer Reports and "will review it in its entirety to further inform our efforts in reducing heavy metals in the food supply."
What we can do to reduce the risks
Manufacturers and regulatory bodies are aware of the issue of heavy metals in baby foods, and thanks to Consumer Reports, now a lot more parents are, too. While we can't control how fast changes come to the way baby food is made, we can control the menu at home.
"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."
In short, one serving of jarred sweet potatoes or a rice-based baby snack isn't going to increase your child's risk for cancer development, neurological problems or respiratory problems, but eating those things all the time could, so mix up the menu. It not only reduces your child's risk of exposure to heavy metals, but exposes them to new foods and textures, too.