What a report on 'toxic heavy metals' in some baby foods means for families

February 05, 2021
Woman spoon feeding baby as man helps.
Congressional investigators say parents should be able to trust that what they're feeding their children is safe.

congressional report that found “dangerous levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury” in some baby foods has a lot of parents worried. And they should be paying attention to it, says Elizabeth Mack, M.D., a pediatric critical care physician at MUSC Children’s Health and a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. But they shouldn’t panic.

“This is an issue that has come up every couple of years,” she said. “One thing for people to remember is that many of these are naturally occurring metals that we should expect to be in some of our foods. So, it's a matter of how much.”

Dr. Elizabeth Mack 
Dr. Elizabeth Mack

How much is a key part of the report. It found that baby foods can contain many times more metals than the Food and Drug Administration allows in bottled water, for example, about 90 times more arsenic, about 170 times more lead, about 70 times more cadmium and up to five times more mercury.

That’s obviously troubling, Mack said. Like the group behind the report, she’d like to see the metals in baby food more strongly regulated. Too much can cause behavioral problems, kidney damage, respiratory and cardiac problems, brain damage and can even be deadly. “The concern is chronic ingestion of low levels of metals, leading to high accumulation of metals in the body.”

The congressional Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy started investigating allegations of heavy metals in baby foods in late 2019. It asked for internal documents and test results from seven of the big baby food makers: 

  • Nurture, which sells Happy Family Organics, including HappyBABY.
  • Beech-Nut.
  • Haim, which sells Earth’s Best Organic.
  • Gerber.
  • Campbell Soup Company, which sells Plum Organics.
  • Walmart, which sells Parents’ Choice.
  • Sprout Foods.

The first four cooperated. 

Campbell, Walmart and Sprout did not, according to the report, which included this statement: “The Subcommittee is greatly concerned that their lack of cooperation might be obscuring the presence of even higher levels of toxic heavy metals in their baby food products than their competitors’ products.”

As Mack noted, concerns about metals in baby foods have been around for a while. The American Academy of Pediatrics already has a lot of information about metals in baby foods on its website

She wants parents to focus on what they can control. “The best we can do for right now is breastfeed, if you can. If not, then keep a quite varied diet. Making your own baby food is an option as well.”

Don’t rely on a single grain, such as rice, as the baby’s main food source, Mack said. Rice can absorb more arsenic when it’s growing than a lot of other crops.

And remember — baby food isn’t the only source of metals. “Cadmium and lead are found in second-hand smoke and can lead to metal absorption in kids. And if you have well water, get it checked out. Metals can be there, too.”

Mack hopes the congressional report will give new energy to efforts to regulate baby food to make it as safe as possible for everyone. “I'm glad that people still have their finger on the pulse of this, but it’s sort of concerning that it continues to be an issue.”

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