“Baby and toddlers are especially vulnerable because of their smaller dimensions and growing intelligence and organ systems,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “They also absorb more of these heavy metals which get in their bodies than adults do.”
That’s why CR’s food safety team analysed 50 nationally distributed packaged foods made for babies and toddlers, checking for cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic, the type most harmful to health.
Children in the U.S. eat a lot of packaged baby food. More than 90 per cent of parents with children 3 and under turn to these foods at least occasionally, the new Consumer Reports national survey of more than 3,000 people found. And annual sales of baby food now top $53 billion and are projected to reach more than $76 billion by 2021, according to Zion Market Research.
Our tests had some troubling findings:
• Every product had measurable levels of at least one of these heavy metals: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead.
• About two-thirds (68 per cent) had worrisome levels of at least one heavy metal.
• Fifteen of the foods would pose potential health risks to a child regularly eating just one serving or less per day.
• Snacks and products containing rice and sweet potatoes were particularly likely to have high levels of heavy metals.
• Organic foods were as likely to contain heavy metals as conventional foods.
While those results are worrisome, parents who have been feeding these foods to their children don’t need to panic, says James Dickerson, Ph.D., chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. He notes that consuming these foods doesn’t guarantee that a child will develop health problems, but that it may merely increase that risk. And whether problems develop depends on a host of factors, including genetics and exposure to other sources of heavy metals, such as from lead paint or contaminated water.
Our testing did have some encouraging findings for parents: It showed that 16 of the products had less concerning levels of the heavy metals, suggesting that all baby food manufacturers should be able to achieve similar results.
How Heavy Metals Get Into Food
Where are these heavy metals coming from and why are they in food?
They all are part of the earth’s crust, so they are naturally found in the environment. But most of the heavy metals in food come from soil or water that has been contaminated through either farming and manufacturing practices (such as pesticide application, mining, and smelting) or pollution (such as the use of leaded gasoline).
Crops absorb heavy metals from the earth and water, the same way they do nutrients. But some plants take up more of the compounds than others. For example, rice absorbs about ten times more arsenic than other grains absorb.
In packaged foods, it is also possible that something in the manufacturing process, such as the type of metal used in machinery, contributes to contamination.
It’s also important to know that these heavy metals aren’t just in packaged baby and toddler foods. “Rice, for example, is known to comprise inorganic arsenic if it’s a component of baby cereal, a rice pilaf mix, or even a rice cracker,” Akinleye states. So, based on the food type and origin, creating your baby food will not automatically lower your kid’s massive metal ingestion.
However, some research indicates that children’s food might have more specific heavy metals compared to other foods. By way of instance, according to the Environmental Defense Fund’s current study of the FDA’s Total Diet Study data, more samples of infant food apple juice, grape juice, and carrots had detectable levels of lead compared to regular versions of these foods. Why this could be the situation is uncertain, even though it’s likely there are gaps in the production processes.
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