'Worrisome' levels of lead, arsenic found in popular baby foods

Consumer Reports found 15 baby and toddler foods, including these five, to contain levels of heavy metals such as arsenic that pose a potential health risk. The organization says to not feed children more than one serving of these a day.(Consumer Reports)

(Meredith) — Consumer advocacy group Consumer Reports is warning parents to limit some types of baby food after finding "worrisome" levels of toxic chemicals, such as arsenic and lead, in them.

Consumer Reports tested 50 baby and toddler food products for cadmium, lead, mercury and arsenic. The foods were bought from a variety of grocery stores across the United States.

What foods are causing concern

Of the 50 foods tested, 34 contained levels of toxic chemicals that food safety experts with Consumer Reports say are worrisome. However, of those 34, 15 products were marked as the worst, actually putting babies who eat one serving of them a day at risk of health problems.

The 15 products Consumer Reports says to limit to one serving or less per day (or else they could pose a potential health risk) are: Gerber Chicken & Rice Gerber Turkey & Rice Gerber Lil' Meals White Turkey Stew with Rice & Vegetables Gerber Carrot, Pear & Blackberry Gerber Carrots Peas & Corn with Lil' Bits Earth's Best Organic Chicken & Brown Rice Earth's Best Turkey, Red Beans & Brown Rice Earth's Best Organic Sweet Potatoes, 1st Stage Earth's Best Organic Whole Grain Rice Cereal Earth's Best Organic Sunny Days Snack Bars, Strawberry Sprout Organic Baby Food Garden Vegetables Brown Rice with Turkey Plum Organics Just Sweet Potato Organic Baby Food Beech-Nut Classics Sweet Potatoes Happy Baby Organics Superfood Puffs, Apple & Broccoli Happy Baby Organics Superfood Puffs, Purple Carrot & BlueberryFood products containing rice and/or sweet potatoes were particularly likely to contain high levels of heavy metals.

Organic foods are not safer

Consumer Reports found that organic baby foods were just as likely to contain these toxic chemicals as conventional products.

In a Consumer Reports survey, 39 percent of parents who bought packaged baby foods bought organic ones, saying their primary reason for buying organic was to avoid heavy metals.

The risk of potential health problems

While the findings are worrisome, Chief Scientific Officer at Consumer Reports James Dickerson says parents who have been feeding their children these foods shouldn't panic. Eating these foods does not ensure a baby will develop health problems, but they do potentially increase the risk.

Exposure to even small amounts of toxic heavy metals at a young age is linked to several health problems, including lower IQ, behavioral problems, autism and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

Exposure to these heavy metals can also harm adults, but babies and toddlers are more vulnerable given their smaller size and developing brains.

The issue specifically concerns children in the United States because they eat large amounts of packaged foods. Annual sales of pre-packaged baby food exceed $53 billion, according to Consumer Reports.

The good news

The Consumer Reports investigation did find that 16 of the 50 tested products had less concerning levels of the toxic heavy metals. This suggests that low, non-worrisome levels are achievable, and all baby food manufacturers should be able to get there with the right guidelines and regulations.

What the FDA is doing

According to the Consumer Reports investigation, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed limiting inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal to 100 parts per billion in 2016. In 2013, the FDA also proposed limiting inorganic arsenic in apple juice to 10 parts per billion, which is the federal standard for drinking water.

Unfortunately, neither proposed limit was ever finalized. However, the FDA said the limits should be in place by the end of 2018.

The FDA told Consumer Reports: “The agency has made this a priority and is working to reduce the health risks these elements present, especially to those most vulnerable: children.”

How heavy metals get into food

How do these toxic chemicals get into food in the first place? Well, they are all part of the Earth's crust, so they are naturally found in the environment. However, most of the heavy metals in food come from soil or water that has been tainted through farming and manufacturing practices, like pesticide use, mining, smelting and pollution.

Steps to take as a parent

Consumer Reports offers 11 tips for parents on how to keep your child safe from harmful heavy metals. The list includes: Limit the amount of infant rice cereal your child eats Choose the right rice (White basmati rice from California, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the U.S. had the lowest levels of heavy metals) Rethink rice prep (cook rice in large amounts of water and drain well) Limit packaged snacks Seek out whole foods low in heavy metals (such as apples, unsweetened applesauce, avocados, bananas, barley with diced vegetables, beans, cheese, grapes, hard-boiled eggs, peaches, strawberries and yogurt) Be wary of fruit juice Go easy on the chocolate Pick the right fish (Bigeye tuna, king mackerel, orange roughy, shark, and swordfish are particularly high in mercury) Pass on protein powders Have your home water supply tested Eat a broad array of healthful whole foodsLearn more

You can read Consumer Reports' full investigation here.

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