Q: I’ve heard a lot in the news recently about arsenic and other heavy metals in baby foods — do I need to be worried about this?
A: In February, a congressional committee asked for internal testing documents on heavy metals in commercial baby foods. Of the companies that responded (Happy Baby Organics, Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best Organic and Gerber), most reported significant levels of heavy metals in their foods, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury. These levels were in ranges of parts per billion (tiny), but still higher than what the FDA allows in bottled water and the EPA allows in drinking water. None of these are great to have in our bodies, and high levels over time have been linked to later developmental and health problems.
At the same time, we live in the world — and the world is full of stuff. Metals such as arsenic exist in the Earth’s crust. That means plants grown in dirt are going to have some degree of these metals in them. Some plants, like rice, take up arsenic more avidly than other plants, and pollution in the local soil makes a difference, too. Processing baby food may concentrate some levels of metals as well.
So, what to do? Try to breastfeed your baby and talk to your pediatrician about best formulas if you need them. Give your baby a well-rounded diet, including fruits, green and orange veggies, meats and grains. Kids don’t need juice — skip it. I usually recommend against rice cereal, since there are more options now like baby oatmeal, multigrain or quinoa cereals. Organic foods are not better — they can still have lots of organic pesticides. Making your own baby food is great if you can, but remember all vegetables will have some metals in them. And please don’t feel guilty if you need to give some baby food packets! There is enough guilt in parenting as it is.
The top two things you can do to reduce heavy-metal exposure? Test your drinking water for lead in your pipes (you can get a free kit from your local water bureau), and don’t smoke or vape (both for yourself and your kids).
Thankfully, the Biden administration announced on March 5 that the FDA will identify maximum safe limits of contaminants in baby foods and finalize guidance on reducing arsenic and lead in juices. Slow progress, but still progress.
Dr. Doug Lincoln practices general pediatrics at Metropolitan Pediatrics in Happy Valley. He is board-certified in both pediatrics and preventive medicine, with special interests in helping parents meet their breastfeeding goals, caring for neurodiverse children with behavioral health needs, and advocating for children via teaching and policy. As a dad of two boys, he understands the joy and hard work that comes with parenting. Find out more about Dr. Doug and Metropolitan Pediatrics at metropediatrics.com.