The fact that heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, cadmium and mercury are found in our food is not new knowledge, but this study tested a wider array of organic and conventional baby foods than other studies have in the past. While the levels of these metals have decreased over the past decade, the levels found in this most recent study are still of concern and unhealthy for our children.
Surprisingly to me, most baby food products (organic or conventional) have no enforceable limit of heavy metals set by the FDA. The FDA has issued a “safe limit” for toxic heavy metals in a few baby food products: infant rice cereal has limits for arsenic, apple juice for arsenic and lead, and 100% fruit juice (non-apple) for lead. And that’s it. Baby foods such as puffs, teething biscuits, infant formula, fruits and veggies have no enforceable limits put in place by the FDA for these heavy metals. Further, just because there are limits doesn’t mean they are followed. “Four of seven infant rice cereals tested in this study contained inorganic arsenic in excess of FDA’s action level” (HBBF).
As I was reading through the article and the full HBBF report, I had the following question:
Do organic baby foods have lower levels of heavy metals?
But before I jump into the study’s findings as well as what else I dug up, I think it’s important to give a little bit of background first. I’d also like to encourage you to read to the bottom where you will find simple steps you can take to reduce your child’s exposure to these heavy metals.
How do heavy metals end up in our food?
Heavy metals are generally not intentionally added to a food product, instead they are absorbed by the crop through heavy metals present in the soil.
How do heavy metals get in the soil?
Heavy metals occur naturally in our soil at trace amounts that are rarely toxic. However, certain circumstances can cause them to be found at higher-than-natural rates, which can be toxic to humans. Heavy metals can become contaminates in the soil because of continued fertilizer application, pesticide application, use of biosolids (including sewage sludge) and manure as fertilizers, using wastewater for irrigation, mining (which can leave behind heavier metals that have settled to the bottom), industrial waste (from industries such as tanning, textiles, and oil spills), and air-borne sources (2011, Raymond A. Wuana and Felix E. Okieimen).
If heavy metals are naturally occurring, why are they bad and what risks do they pose?
The problem with heavy metals occurs when they are concentrated within the soil or compounded with every meal or snack we eat. Even “in the trace amounts found in food, these contaminants can alter the developing brain and erode a child’s IQ” (HBBF).
“…Heavy metals have been linked to lower IQs and learning problems in children in the short term, and to type 2 diabetes, heart disease, certain cancers, and reproductive problems later in life” Consumer Reports.
What foods pose the highest risk?
Rice and rice products (rice cereal, rice-based puffs, etc.) are the worst in terms of heavy metal levels, particularly arsenic*. Other top offenders are fruit juices, Cheerios and other oat ring cereal, sweet potato baby food, soft cereal bars and oatmeal cookies, macaroni and cheese, puffs and teething biscuits, and fruit yogurt (HBBF).
*For more information on arsenic in rice (including rice cereal, and rice-based puffs), the risks it poses and which types of rice have the most and least amounts of inorganic arsenic, check out this Consumer Reports article.
How did Organic baby Foods perform?
The study tested both organic and conventional brands including Beech-Nut, Earth’s Best, Gerber, HappyBABY, 365 organic (Whole Foods), Enfamil, Meijer, Parent’s Choice (Walmart), Simple Truth Organic (Kroger), up&up (Target), Meijer, Plum Organics, Sprout, Motts and many other brands. Unfortunately, organic baby foods contained concerning levels of heavy metals, too. In fact, two of the organic rice cereals tested exceeded the FDA’s “safe limit” for inorganic arsenic.
But aren’t there standards for organic food?
Yes, but as the HBBF report states, “organic standards do not address these contaminants.” Surely, I thought, this was incorrect. So I went straight to the source and read through 90% of the Organic Certification Standards.
On a very basic level, what I found was that the study was right, for the most part. Really, what I found was a lot of regulation jargon that I’ll try to summarize as simply as I can for you in a few key takeaways:
1) Heavy metals are not allowed to be added to the soil of organic fields.
“For a handling operation to be certified under this chapter, each person on such handling operation shall not, with respect to any agricultural product covered by this chapter… add any ingredient known to contain levels of nitrates, heavy metals, or toxic residues in excess of those permitted by the applicable organic certification program…” Sec. 6510(a)(2)
2) Organic foods are not allowed to be grown on land to which heavy metals were applied within 3 years prior to the crop’s harvest.
“To be sold or labeled as an organically produced agricultural product under this chapter, an agricultural product shall… not be produced on land to which any prohibited substances*, including synthetic chemicals, have been applied during the 3 years immediately preceding the harvest of the agricultural products…” Sec 6504(2)
*Arsenic and lead salts fall under “prohibited substances”
3) There are no limits provided specifically for organic foods, but testing can be requested.
“The USDA organic regulations recognize the risk of heavy metal contamination… However, the regulations do not otherwise provide limits for contamination, or guidance for prevention.”
“Certifiers can request additional testing if potential contamination is suspected” (Rodale Institute).
Is organic better than conventional baby food?
Based on the regulations for Certified Organic foods, theoretically, organic foods should have lower levels of heavy metals present. However, this does not mean they have no heavy metals present. It is clear from the study that they do.
And while it was not the point of the HBBF study to directly compare organic foods versus conventional foods, nor did they make any statement about the difference between the two, there are a couple of raw data points that may suggest (though not conclusively) that the organic foods had lower levels of these metals than their conventional counterparts.
- Beech-Nut’s organic carrots and organic sweet potatoes contained lower levels of lead than their conventional carrots and sweet potatoes did.
- HappyBABY’s and Meijer’s organic sweet potatoes contained lower levels of arsenic than their conventional sweet potatoes did.
So while I cannot say conclusively that organic baby food has lower levels of heavy metals, it does seem likely. However, just choosing organic baby food will not do enough to significantly lower baby’s exposure to heavy metals through their diet.
So what are we parents to do?
All the information I just threw at you is quite discouraging. If choosing organic won’t significantly solve the problem, and making my own baby food won’t solve the problem either since the problem is in the soil, then what?
Thankfully, the HBBF study didn’t just report doom and gloom, drop the mic and leave. Instead, they say that “simple changes can significantly lower a baby’s exposures to heavy metal contamination. Parents shopping for baby food can choose five types of safer items, all readily available, over more contaminated foods (see table below). The safer choices contain 80 percent less arsenic, lead and other toxic heavy metals, on average, than the riskier picks.”
If you want to keep rice in your or your baby’s diet, consider the suggestions in this Consumer Reports article to help you choose rice that is lower in arsenic. The type of rice and where it is sourced from is important when considering which rice products to purchase.
As of the time this post was published, the FDA has yet to respond to the study (published October 2019). In addition to giving parents the action items above to limit babies’ exposure to heavy metals, HBBF also called on baby food companies and the FDA to take additional steps such as sourcing rice from fields with lower arsenic levels and establishing standards for heavy metals, putting priority on the foods that pose the highest risk.