A major investigation by congress sounds the alarm.
This article was originally published in February of 2021.
Readers of the news may recall that there have been profound concerns about the presence of poisonous metals in products sold in the U.S. under the category of “baby food.”
Some years ago, the arsenic and rice story was revealed and we urged all families to stop giving their infants rice cereal. The story tells us that the rice plant likes arsenic. If there is arsenic in the soil, the rice plant will seek it out and take it in, concentrating it in the hull of its rice grains. In response to this finding, the Attorney General of the state of New York sampled all brands of those charming boxes of baby rice cereal, and found 44% of the boxes had toxic levels of arsenic in them!
It was this finding that moved us to urge all of us to stop using “baby” rice cereal.
Then in October 2019, the group Health Babies Bright Futures, which monitors how safe baby foods are, published a landmark study in which they measured not just arsenic, but lead, mercury, and cadmium levels in baby foods. Their findings confirmed the findings of NY’s AG, but found these toxic metals in all processed rice products studied as well as “baby” juices, and even in some vegetables. The levels in vegetables were the orange ones, carrots and sweet potatoes, were high enough to exercise caution and portion control. But for all rice products for kids and all baby juices, the levels were high enough to never eat.
Now comes our United States Congress. Our government represents our collective will, when gathered it is a powerful will, and this will was expressed in the interest of our babies in February of 2021. Our Congress conducted an in-depth study of the safety of our nation’s baby food, inspired by the Health Babies Bright Futures work, and what they found was in a word, shocking.
The investigation revealed that many companies who create foods they market as baby food knowingly add ingredients that all would agree are toxic, or more plainly put, poisonous. I was professionally shocked and personally dismayed to also learn that many of the companies publicly identified as doing this are branded as organic food producers, and label their products as organic.
What is the Problem with Metals?
Most elements in the universe are metals, defined as an element that conducts electricity when super-chilled down to a level of having no heat at all, or absolute zero. Most of us think of metals as hard shiny substances, and that is a fair physical definition.
Not all metals are toxic, some are essential, some are both.
Gold is a metal that in its elemental form is non-toxic, which is why it really is safe to ingest gold flakes on cakes, and when sprinkled in drinks.
And then some metals are essential at some levels, but poisonous at higher levels. Perhaps the most interesting such metal is one that is essential to life, but is also highly poisonous. That would be iron. Iron is the 26th element in the periodic table, right in the middle of the first full row for all the chemistry fans out there. Iron has the ability to reversibly stick to oxygen molecules. Life has found a way to use that property to capture iron ions and place them strategically in the middle of well-constructed proteins, to deliver oxygen and release it, just right. The protein chlorophyll does this in plants, and for all animal life, hemoglobin does this in our blood. No iron, no animals, no plants. But if too many iron atoms get into a person, grave harm is done to our organs. At the right level, iron is essential to life, at higher levels, powerfully poisonous.
Most metals are generally poisonous. Lead is a great example of an element (#82) that is poisonous at any level. It serves no good, and any amount can cause serious damage.
For a group of metals like lead, the harm they cause is at the level of organ function. Hurting organs to the point they don’t work well anymore is a very, very serious level of damage. Just consider one of our organs, the brain. The human brain is one of the most extraordinary creations in the universe, delivering function by some of the most complex processes we know of. So much of what we think and feel is dependent on the brain, but the brain is an organ that requires many functions to work properly, and those functions are tragically simple to interfere with, and/or damage.
Most toxic or poisonous metals hurt the brain. Others damage the heart, the kidneys, the reproductive organs. Almost all hurt the brain. And what does that brain damage look like? It means loss of intelligence. It means perhaps having any number of complex conditions that can follow such damage, including, but not limited to: autism spectrum disorder; ADHD; behavior disorders; and learning disorders. Now to be clear, many, many paths can lead to these problems. The brain is indeed a most complex, and therefore delicate, organ. Thus, many genetic damages, many infectious disease damages, even many plain old physical injuries, can lead to these conditions. But poisoning by toxic metals can, and do. All the time.
Lead is the most famous and most deeply studied of the poisonous metals. We know from the extraordinary work of Dr. Herbert Needleman of Pittsburgh that even a little lead causes observable problems with using our brains. He got donations of baby teeth from many families, and measured their lead level, which reflected really how much their bodies were loaded with lead over the first 5-7 years of life. Then he tracked items like school success, social success, career success. He found a very, very strong pattern. As lead levels rose, students failed school, had various conditions like ADHD, an increase in criminality, failure to launch careers, more and more.
Although not as intensely studied, we know that other metals cause similar damage to the brain, including mercury and cadmium.
Arsenic is a metal that poisons all organs, because it denies all cells the oxygen they need to function, but that also includes the brain.
What Congress Found in Baby Food
Again, Congress has resources to launch in-depth investigations, and lucky for us, they have used this power to look at a wide number and variety of products sold to us as baby foods.
Here is what they found:
- Many products called baby food contain many times the acceptable levels set for bottle water for metals such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium.
- These poisons are not accidentally found in the baby foods. In many instances, these toxic metals were added to these products by those who manufacture them. In one instance, it was found that a company added arsenic to adjust the food’s crumbliness to a more favored state.
- Many of the companies whose baby food products were found to contain toxic levels of these poisonous metals were branded as “organic” and sell their products strongly promoting the brand’s “organic” quality. These companies included Sprout Organics, Plum Organics, Parent’s Choice Organic, Happy Family Organic, Earth’s Best Organic.
- Beech-Nut was mentioned as a company whose baby food products contained very high levels of these toxic metals. Examples include lead, which in bottle water cannot exceed 5 parts per billion (ppb). Their enzyme additive called BAN 800 has a lead level of 5,000 ppb and the cinnamon they use has a lead level measured at 886.9 ppb.
- Gerber was mentioned as a company using ingredients that contain high levels of lead, and whose carrots have high levels of cadmium.
- Nurture Happy Baby’s fruit and vegetable puffs (specifically, broccoli, strawberry, apple, and beet) contain high levels of arsenic.
A Word on “Organic”
The report highlights the fact that some baby food products, presented to us as “organic,” contained high levels of toxic metals. How could this be? Doesn’t organic mean safe?
Organic, it turns out, is a measure, not a standard. To be certified as organic, the food must pass a number of measures of various items. Most refer to the use of added agricultural products, such as antibiotics and insecticides. The problem is that not all toxic items are measured, as clearly showcased by these findings.
This really raises the overall issue of the safety of our entire food supply. After all, rice is now known to concentrate arsenic, all on its own, with no agricultural processes adding arsenic to the crop.
It becomes increasingly clear that our goal needs to move beyond feeling we are safe if we choose to define safety be the concept of measures, and not the concept of safety.
I favor the approach we take with drug companies. We ask them to take on the responsibility of proving their product is safe before they can sell it to anyone. This is called the precautionary principle and it is the rule in Europe for not just drugs but every chemical.
What Can Be Done to Protect Your Baby?
The good news is that by avoiding certain baby foods, the exposure to these heavy metals that can damage brain development can be dramatically reduced.
- The most important step is to eliminate rice containing foods. This includes rice cereal, rice snacks, and rice dishes. It is estimated that doing so can spare 20% of all the IQ points lost due to toxins in foods in the first 2 years of life.
- Drop fruit juice and use tap water instead (tap water is safer than bottled). Doing so drops exposure to toxic metals from juices by 68%.
- Move away from carrots and sweet potatoes and instead use other fruits and vegetables and you drop exposure to toxic metals from produce by 73%
- Whole milk was found to deliver the second highest amount of toxic metals, mainly because of how much we give our kids to drink. Levels per ounce were not very high, but 1-2 year olds drink a lot of it. So reduce intake to about 1-2 cups a day, and you can reduce toxic metal exposures substantially.
- Make your own mashes and purees. Making your own baby food may not be as convenient as the baby products listed in the above studies, but given the findings, it is now our recommendation. Buy safe fruits and vegetables, and mash or puree them. It’s time to think about making food for our babies like we make food for each other: get the ingredients; make the food.
In addition to making these choices, all of us can put pressure on the FDA and baby food manufacturers to source foods that are lower in toxic heavy metal content. This pressure works.
Bottom Lines on Baby Food
- The more we look, the more we find poisonous metals in our baby foods.
- These metals include lead, and mercury, and arsenic, and cadmium.
- Toxic levels of these metals were found in quite a wide variety of baby foods. The problem now clearly extends beyond rice cereal, rice products, and baby fruit juices.
- Poisonous metals were found in baby “foods” clearly designated as “organic.”
The fact that so many foods manufactured and promoted for use by babies contain poisonous metals at high levels leads us to now recommend that we no longer purchase manufactured baby foods. We need to recognize them for what they are: processed foods that have nothing to do with infancy.
At this time, it is preferable to buy your own safe fruits and vegetables and mash them up yourself, to buy non-rice cereal flakes, and mix them up yourself. We do that to make food for our older children and each other, it is time we did so for our babies.
For families that favor baby-led weaning, you have not used these baby “foods” for a while and are all set.