The First 1,000 Days

The Truth About Heavy Metals in Your Baby’s Food

We have Jeanne Reilly, MS, RD break down what you should know

Fast Facts: What You Should Know About Heavy Metals in Your Baby’s Food

  • The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy released a report showing that baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of harmful heavy metals that endanger an infant’s neurological development and long-term brain function.
  • 95% of baby food sold in the US contains heavy metals (according to a separate third party report here)
  • From the time of conception through the age of 2, babies have an extremely high sensitivity to neurotoxic chemicals

Why It Matters 

A number of studies in recent years have found unsafe levels of heavy metals in popular packaged infant and toddler foods. (1.)  Most recently, a congressional study released in 2021 found that these contaminants are detrimental to adults and children alike, but very young children absorb heavy metals more readily than adults, and their small, developing brains and organs are more vulnerable to their negative effects. (2.) Exposure to certain heavy metals early in life has been linked to problems with normal development, cognitive delays, and even behavioral issues like autism and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) in children and teens. (3.)  

What You Can Do

You can limit your child’s exposure to potentially harmful heavy metals, like lead, mercury, cadmium, and inorganic arsenic, by serving as much fresh food as possible and avoid foods that most commonly contain higher levels of heavy metals. Keeping processed and packaged foods to a minimum is a great first step.

The Impact of Heavy Metals on Your Baby’s Health

The last place parents might expect to find harmful metals is in the foods they buy—foods specifically made for their babies. Over 90 percent of parents rely on packaged convenience foods made for babies and toddlers to make feeding their children just a little bit easier. (1.) However, the amount of heavy metal these foods are allowed to contain is largely unregulated by the Food and Drug Administration. 

Additional Reading: 8 Things No One Tells You About Starting Solids 

How Heavy Metals End Up in Your Baby’s Food

Heavy metals turn up in our foods as a result of the soil, water, farming practices (like pesticide application), and pollution in the environment a food is grown and manufactured in. Surprisingly, organic baby and toddler foods do not contain lower levels of heavy metals, despite organic foods not being sprayed with pesticides. (4.)

Heavy metal exposure can have long-term impacts on your baby’s health and quality of life. (3.) For example, research has linked early childhood exposure to inorganic arsenic and lead to lower IQ scores and lower socioeconomic status in adulthood. In recent testing conducted by Consumer Reports, rice cereals, and other rice- and sweet potato-based foods were found to contain higher levels of inorganic arsenic and mercury than other types of infant cereals or snacks. 1 of the 50 infant and toddler foods Consumer Reports tested, 15 were found to pose potential health risks to a child eating just one serving per day on a regular basis. A separate test of 530 best-selling baby foods revealed over 58 percent of the products tested contained cadmium, a heavy metal linked to learning disabilities and kidney damage. (4.) Snack foods like bars, cookies, crackers, crisps, and puffs were found to contain greater amounts of heavy metals than any other baby food category tested. 

To be clear, consuming processed, packaged foods does not guarantee your baby will have health issues related to heavy metal exposure. There are many other factors, such as genetics, and environment (like exposure to lead paint or contaminated water), that also play a role in the impact metals have on health outcomes. While the amount of metals in a serving of packaged food may not seem like much, when your baby is consuming a single serving, day after day, the impact of those small amounts adds up. Heavy metals accumulate in our bodies over time, and the health risks and toxins that come along with them remain in our bodies for years. 

How to Avoid Heavy Metals in Your Baby’s Diet: 

It’s vital to know where heavy metals are hiding in your baby’s food, and how to limit any exposure they may be getting from their diet.

Start by taking these simple steps: 

  • Avoid regularly serving infant versions of juices, packaged sweet potato or carrots, or rice based foods and snacks as these foods contain higher levels of heavy metals. (6)
  • Switch rice cereals and snacks for oats, barley, or other iron-fortified, whole grain options. 
  • Aim to serve whole food snacks like fruits, vegetables, cheeses, or whole grain, homemade bars or muffins in place of processed cookies, crackers, puffs, crisps, and other snack foods packaged for babies and toddlers. 
  • If you do opt for packaged baby and toddler food products, stick with fruit and vegetable options as they are shown to contain the lowest amounts of metals. 

Sourcing: 

  1. “Heavy Metals in Baby Food: What You Need to … – Consumer Reports.” 16 Aug. 2018, https://www.consumerreports.org/food-safety/heavy-metals-in-baby-food/. Accessed 24 Aug. 2018.
  2. “Food safety – World Health Organization.” 31 Oct. 2017, http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/food-safety. Accessed 24 Aug. 2018.
  3. “Association of Childhood Blood Lead Levels With Cognitive Function ….” https://jamanetwork.com/journals/JAMA/articlepdf/2613157/joi170016supp1_prod.pdf. Accessed 24 Aug. 2018.
  4. “Infant Formula and Baby Food – Clean Label Project.” https://www.cleanlabelproject.org/infant-formula-baby-food/. Accessed 24 Aug. 2018.
  5. “Rice-Based Infant Cereals Contain More Mercury Than Other Types ….” 25 Oct. 2017, https://www.consumerreports.org/food-contaminants/rice-based-infant-cereals-contain-more-mercury-than-other-types/. Accessed 24 Aug. 2018.
  6. “Lead in food: A hidden health threat | Environmental Defense Fund.” 15 Jun. 2017, https://www.edf.org/health/lead-food-hidden-health-threat. Accessed 24 Aug. 2018.

Let’s build a healthier generation together