As a parent, you want to make sure that your baby grows up happy and healthy. You learn how to care for a newborn: how to swaddle, how to change a diaper, how to treat skin conditions.
You make them feel save and loved. And of course, you ensure that they get the best possible nutrition. Yes, breastfeeding is what ensures optimal nutrition for babies. But we all know that breastfeeding is not always a possibility. For the moms who cannot or chose not to breastfeed, hours of research go into finding the right formula.
You finally think you found the right one and your baby is doing well. And then one day you read a gruesome headline, telling you that your baby's formula may contain some alarming levels of heavy metals.
"Ingredients in many baby foods, including some organic fare, are contaminated with heavy metals like arsenic, lead and cadmium at levels that are far higher than those allowed in products like bottled water, congressional investigators said on Thursday." Stated a New York Times article in February of this year.
Yes, there are concerning levels of heavy metals in some baby foods. In order to understand why this issue is urgently important, we must understand what heavy metals are and why they are harmful. In this article, we will be covering all the important information about how these metals are harmful, the specific findings of metals in baby foods and what you can do to avoid them.
What Are Heavy Metals, and Why Are They Dangerous?
Heavy metals, when said in a health context, are a broad category. What ties this group of elements together is that they are all toxic to the human body in certain doses. Toxic heavy metals can include, but aren't limited to:
Where Do Heavy Metals Come From?
All of these elements originate in the earth's crust and lower layers. However, they can enter the environment and agricultural soil through many routes, and from there can enter the food supply. Some of the most notable sources of contamination of dangerous metals are:
Industrial runoff, fumes, and waste
Mining and smelting
Urban runoff (Jaishankar et al., 2014)
Health Concerns Surrounding Toxic Metals
Exposure to heavy metals carries many health risks. Such exposure may happen through consumption, inhalation, or physical contact. The specific biological reasons for the health effects of heavy metals vary depending on the element, as do the effects themselves.
Hazardous metals wreak havoc through numerous biochemical routes, and the cascading effects on various body systems range widely. Neurological damage, bone damage, lung disease, and kidney damage are among the most common effects.
How Do People Get Exposed to Heavy Metals?
The general population is frequently exposed to harmful levels of dangerous metals. Atmospheric pollution can cause people to breathe in toxic elements. Lead paint, which is no longer in use but is still found in old buildings, is another source.
It is possible that the most common source of exposure to dangerous metals is through high levels of heavy metals found in foods. Contaminated soil, use of pesticides containing dangerous metals, and leaching from manufacturing equipment and packaging are the main culprits.
Some crops absorb more harmful compounds than others; for example, rice absorbs 10 times the arsenic from soil than other grains. This makes rice cereal the top arsenic-containing baby food. , Arsenic is ubiquitous in the environment as it naturally occurs in soil, air, and water meaning it's impossible to remove it from the environment or food supply entirely.
Heavy metals tend to stay in the food chain once they have entered it and accumulate from there. For this reason, the consumption of large-size ocean fish is the primary route through which adults are exposed to mercury, one of the hazardous metals.
New Parents Should Be Aware of Toxic Metal in Baby Food
High levels of heavy metals in food pose significant health risks for adults, children, babies, and toddlers alike. However, higher levels of heavy metals are especially dangerous for infants and children and can have a negative impact on health and development.
Scientific research has shown for decades that commercially available baby foods often contain hazardously high levels of metals. Parents should be educated about the risks of pre-made baby food and formula so that they can make the best decisions possible for their child's wellbeing.
Why Are Heavy Metals Especially Harmful to Children?
Metals such as cadmium, lead, arsenic, and mercury are harmful to adults. However, they are particularly dangerous for infants and children. This is because these elements have a severe impact on the physical and neurological development of a growing baby.
The body of an infant cannot handle the same amount of exposure to hazardous metals as an adult can. This isn't just because of their smaller size. Compared to adults, infants and children absorb a higher proportion of toxic metals from their foods and drinks and retain more of those heavy metals than an adult would. Plus, a higher proportion of the absorbed dangerous metals are deposited into children's brains (Lidksy et. al, n.d.).
Heavy Metal's and Child Development
The list of specific health effects that toxic metals can have on a child is quite long. However, one of the most notable problems is stunted brain development. Problems that hazardous metals can cause for child development include, but aren't limited to:
Disruptive or abnormal behavior
Impaired attention and executive function
Impaired language skills
Impaired motor functioning
Reduced ability to absorb vitamin D and iron
Risk of hypertension in adulthood
Recent New Findings About Heavy Metal Contamination of Baby Foods
Scientific research has shown for decades that commercially prepared baby foods and formulas contain unsafe levels of harmful substances. Legislative and regulatory institutions have been incredibly slow to change policies in light of this ongoing research.
A landmark investigation report was recently published in 2021 by the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, a subcommittee of the United States House of Representatives. This investigation looked at four leading baby food manufacturers.
Investigators found that these major companies' products were tainted with dangerously high levels of the dangerous metals arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury (House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy, 2021).
Why Do Baby Foods Have Such High Toxic Metal Content?
Beyond the issues of contaminated farming soil and water, pesticides, and pollution, baby food manufacturers in the U.S. have to test the ingredients that go into their food products but it's not required to test the final product. Additional toxic heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury frequently enter the product during the production process, likely from manufacturing equipment and packaging.
However, one of the biggest reasons why infant foods are contaminated is simply that most types of infant foods do not have limit levels for the content of hazardous metals set by the Food and Drug Administration. This unfortunately leaves the term "safety" largely up to the interpretation of the corporations.
These baby food manufacturers have been allowed to self-regulate and are not held accountable. Internal documents from Hain Celestial Group, revealed in an investigation, that although the company sets a limit of 100 parts per billion of arsenic, products that test over this limit (as high as 180 parts per billion of arsenic) are still marked as ready for sale.
One would think that baby foods are especially safe. After all, making safe and uncontaminated foods is critical to the health of babies.
Many consumers feel misled by manufacturers regarding the safety of their products. Nonprofit organization Consumer Reports conducted a survey in 2018 of over 3,000 people who had a child under the age of three. This survey found that about half of these parents were under the impression that prepackaged baby foods were subject to stricter regulation and testing than foods for adults.
Organic Certification Isn't Enough
Consumer Reports also conducted a survey that found that 39 percent of parents who chose organic foods for their young children did so in part because they thought these products would help them avoid exposure to toxic heavy metals (Hirsch, 2018).
This is another thing that parents have been deceived about. Marketing strategies surrounding the term "organic" may be to blame. USDA-certified organic infant foods are just as likely to contain high levels of heavy metal as non-organic ones. Organic certification is not always enough to ensure safety for infants and toddlers.
How Parents Can Reduce Their Baby's Exposure to Toxic Metals
Choosing the Right Formula
Although breastfeeding is the healthiest option for an infant, the reality is that it isn't practical or possible for every family. When baby formula is used, it is extremely important to choose a safe and healthy formula so that young children may flourish in their most delicate stage of development.
It's important to research brands thoroughly when searching for a safe infant formula, this will help you to learn how the company takes action to minimize the risk of contamination by metals. European organic baby formula brands can be a good choice for parents who are concerned about heavy metals in baby formula.
European legal requirements for formula quality are extremely strict and require frequent testing and controls at all stages of production. Additionally, the EU organic certification for agricultural products gives extra assurance that the products do not contain any potentially harmful substances. It prohibits the use of chemical pesticides and herbicides, GMOs, and hormones.
The HiPP baby formula company
This organic German baby formula brand cares about the safety of their products which is why they implement frequent quality controls that go even further than the EU regulations. The quality and safety of HiPP formula products takes priority early on in production beginning with the meadows their cows graze in. These free-range dairy cows feed only on approved, natural, organic pastures that have been soil tested for dangerous agricultural chemicals.
HiPP tests all ingredients very thoroughly before they are put into a product. The company tests for over 1,000 harmful substances using exquisitely sensitive measuring equipment. HiPP also checks the safety of the finished products, not just the raw ingredients. HiPP products go through up to 260 safety checks by the time they reach the consumer.
Holle's baby food and baby formula
Holle is another German baby food company with many decades of experience. The raw ingredients of Holle formula come from biodynamic and organic agriculture, free from pesticides, chemical fertilizers, and GMOs. Holle has an ongoing and very thorough quality control process, similar to that of HiPP. They analyze for contaminants and residues using comprehensive sensor technology.
Holle also carries the hard-to-come-by Demeter certification, which is one of the strictest organic certifications in the world. Demeter International is the largest private certification organization for healthy, biodynamic farming practices, established more than 90 years ago. Plus, the Holle company is committed to environmentally sustainable practices such as carbon neutrality.
Minimizing the Risks of Premade Baby Food
At the weaning stage and beyond, there are choices parents can make to reduce their child's chance of exposure to dangerous heavy metal. One option is to make baby food at home from whole, organic foods using a food processor or blender. This can help to avoid dangerous metal-containing additives as well as dangerous metals leaching out of manufacturing equipment.
It may not be practical for every single meal a baby or toddler eats to be homemade. Pre-made baby food can also be a good option. Baby food products by organic brands such as HiPP and Holle can be a nutritious and healthy choice.
The ingredients that go into the production of the purees, cereals, etc. stem from EU organic certified production that is pesticide and GMO-free. Just as with baby formula, the baby food products of HiPP and Holle undergo frequent quality controls and screening to ensure their safety for consumers.
In addition, a key strategy is to feed the child a wide variety of food, both throughout the day and from day to day. Rotating proteins and grains and offering a variety of fruits and vegetables helps to reduce the amount of hazardous heavy metal such as arsenic that the baby is exposed to. This is because levels of metals in baby food vary from product to product.
1. Gardener, H., Bowen, J., & Callan, S. P. (2019). Lead and cadmium contamination in a large sample of United States infant formulas and baby foods. The Science of the Total Environment, 651(Pt 1), 822–827.
3. Jaishankar, M., Tseten, T., Anbalagan, N., Mathew, B. B., & Beeregowda, K. N. (2014). Toxicity, mechanism and health effects of some heavy metals. Interdisciplinary Toxicology, 7(2), 60–72 - https://doi.org/10.2478/intox-2014-0009
4. Lidsky, T. I., Heaney, A. T., Schneider, J. S., & Rosen, J. F. (n.d.). Neurodevelopmental E¤ects of Childhood Exposure to Heavy Metals: Lessons from Pediatric Lead Poisoning. Council of New Jersey Grantmakers. Retrieved March 2, 2021
5. Loria, K. (2021, February 5). Baby Food and Heavy Metals: What Parents Should Do Now. Consumer Reports - https://www.consumerreports.org/baby-food/baby-food-and-heavy-metals-advice-for-parents/
6. Redgrove, J., Rodriguez, I., Mahadevan-Bava, S., & Exley, C. (2019). Prescription Infant Formulas Are Contaminated with Aluminium. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16(5), 899
Please be aware that this information is based on general trends in babies, and it is not medical advice. Your doctor should be your first source of information and advice when considering any changes to your child’s formula and when choosing your child’s formula. Always consult your pediatrician before making any decisions about your child’s diet or if you notice any changes in your child.
Breastfeeding is the best nutrition for your baby because breast milk provides your child with all the essential nutrients they need for growth and development. Please consult your pediatrician if your child requires supplemental feeding.