Wait, There’s Lead in Baby Food? What to Know About the FDA’s Latest Guidance

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The FDA is proposing a new limit on the amount of lead permissible in baby food. The announcement, shared on Jan. 24, comes after years of studies have demonstrated that processed foods made for babies and children under age 2 are contaminated with toxic heavy metals that can hinder brain development.

The FDA’s new proposed lead guidance is part of their Closer to Zero plan, which is dedicated to “continually reducing exposure to lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury to the lowest levels possible in foods eaten by babies and young children,” per the announcement. This new guidance sets an upper limit of 10 parts per billion of lead in yogurts, fruits, or vegetables and no more than 20 parts per billion in root vegetables and in dry infant cereals. But these are only proposed guidelines: if formally adopted, then the FDA will be able to force companies to abide by the new limits.

“Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement.”

“The proposed action levels announced today, along with our continued work with our state and federal partners, and with industry and growers to identify mitigation strategies, will result in long-term, meaningful and sustainable reductions in the exposure to this contaminant from foods,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, MD, in the FDA announcement. “For babies and young children who eat the foods covered in today’s draft guidance, the FDA estimates that these action levels could result in as much as a 24-27 percent reduction in exposure to lead from these foods.”

The draft guidance comes shortly after the FDA set limits in 2020 on inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal and proposed lower lead levels for juice in a draft opinion released in 2022.

Though it seems like a step in the right direction, it’s important to note that there’s no safe level of lead for children, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Even low levels of lead in blood have been shown to negatively affect a child’s intelligence, ability to pay attention, and academic achievement,” per the CDC.

Still, years of research show that foods for babies and children under age 2 are contaminated with lead and other toxic substances. A 2022 report from Healthy Babies Bright Futures found that 94 percent of commercial baby food, homemade purees, and family brands tested had detectable levels of heavy metals.

Additionally, in Feb. 2021, US congressional investigators found “dangerous levels of toxic heavy metals” in certain baby foods that could cause neurological damage, according to Reuters. And in 2019, another investigation published by Healthy Babies Bright Futures of 168 baby foods from major US manufacturers found that 95 percent contained some form of metal – nearly every one contained lead, 75 percent contained cadmium, 73 percent contained arsenic, and 32 percent contained mercury. One in four foods contained all of them. The same year, Consumer Reports announced that potentially harmful heavy metals were also found in popular juice brands.

And reports of such contaminants being hidden within infant foods aren’t even remotely new. It’s been nearly a decade since reports revealed concerning levels of arsenic to be found in rice.

How to Reduce Your Child’s Risk

What are parents to do with all these repeated – and alarming – studies?

Unfortunately, lead cannot be completely removed from the food supply, according to the AAP. That’s because, “just as fruits, vegetables, and grain crops readily absorb vital nutrients from the environment, these foods also take up contaminants, like lead, that can be harmful to health,” per the FDA. To help manage your child’s exposure levels, both the AAP and FDA stress the importance of feeding your young children a variety of healthy foods.

“To support child growth and development, we recommend parents and caregivers feed children a varied and nutrient-dense diet across and within the main food groups of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and protein foods,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, in the FDA’s new draft guidance. “This approach helps your children get important nutrients and may reduce potential harmful effects from exposure to contaminants from foods that take up contaminants from the environment.”

Related: I Want My Kids to Be Healthy, but That Doesn’t Mean I’m Feeding Them Only Organic Food

According to the AAP, FDA, and Healthy Babies Bright Futures, the following steps can also help reduce your child’s risk of contaminated foods:

  • Offer a wide variety of first foods. The AAP maintains its guidelines that parents should offer diverse options. The least-contaminated foods, according to the 2022 report by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, are bananas, grits, baby food brand meats, butternut squash, lamb, apples, pork, eggs, oranges, and watermelon.
  • Cleaning fresh fruits and vegetables. The AAP recommends thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables and peeling those that can be peeled. Healthy Babies Bright Futures recommends opting for fresh or frozen (thawed) fruit (including homemade purees) instead of canned fruit for less lead.
  • Avoid rice. Rice cakes and crisped rice cereal are heavily contaminated with arsenic, according to the 2022 Healthy Babies Bright Futures report. Oatmeal or multigrain cereals are ideal substitutes. If you opt to cook rice for toddlers, the report recommends choosing white rice over brown rice and cook it in extra water that is poured off before serving.
  • Avoid teething biscuits. These, too, can contain a host of heavy metals, so opt for a wet washcloth or a silicone teether. If food is preferred, a frozen banana or a chilled cucumber are better options.
  • Avoid juice. Fruit juices also contain some lead and arsenic, so the AAP strongly recommends parents keep them away from kids. Babies under 6 months only need breast milk or formula, and beyond that, water and milk are the best choices.
  • Be mindful of orange root vegetables. Sweet potatoes and carrots are great sources of vitamin A, but the Healthy Babies Bright Futures 2022 report found them high in lead and cadmium. Although no one is suggesting kids shouldn’t eat these veggies, continuing to offer a variety helps mitigate risks.

-Additional reporting by Lauren Mazzo

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