You’ve probably heard that lead has been found in drinking water, that certain kinds of fish contain high levels of mercury, and that worrisome amounts of arsenic have been found in rice. But you may not know why that’s a problem—or that these elements (and others, such as lead and cadmium), commonly known as “heavy metals,” are also in many other foods. This includes foods made just for babies and toddlers, such as popular snacks, cereals, prepared entrées, and packaged fruits and vegetables.
Over time, exposure to heavy metals can harm the health of adults and children. One of the biggest worries: cognitive development in very young children.
“Babies and toddlers are particularly vulnerable due to their smaller size and developing brains and organ systems,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “They also absorb more of the heavy metals that get into their bodies than adults do.”
That’s why CR’s food safety team analyzed 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 percent of parents with children 3 and under turn to these foods at least occasionally, a 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 percent) 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/or 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 simply 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.
What’s more, there are important steps parents can take right now to reduce their child’s health risks. See “What Parents Can Do,” below.