Key Questions this Article Answers:
- What’s the deal with heavy metals?
- What can we do about heavy metals?
- How to minimize your child’s exposure
- Looking ahead
Heavy metals (namely, cadmium, lead, mercury, and arsenic) are actually naturally-occurring substances. They’re commonplace in soil and water, and crops as a rule absorb some of these metals as they grow.
That said, some places have higher levels than others. In particular, areas that have been subject to pollution -- whether it be from pesticides, contaminated fertilizer, airborne contaminants, and/or industrial operations -- tend to have higher levels of heavy metal residues compared to other less “adulterated” regions. Some foods are more prone to absorption than others, too. Things like leafy greens and root vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes, beets, etc.) hang onto heavy metals more than other types of fruits and veggies.
Thus, heavy metals are present in the foods we eat (and the water we drink). There is no shopping out of it. It’s true: we can’t buy our way out of toxic/heavy metals exposures -- for ourselves or for our children. We just can’t. Even if you DIY or buy organic when it comes to baby food (or any other food, for that matter), there’s no escaping it. (As economist Emily Oster explains: “The problem is largely with ingredients, not processing.”) We all are exposed to these substances on some level.
What we can do? Minimize exposures.
We probably don’t need to convince you that it’s worthwhile to try to minimize your child’s heavy metal exposures -- it’s because babies and children are at a higher risk of negative neurological effects. *But it’s important to keep things in perspective. Firstly, remember: we are all exposed. Next, the concern with dietary exposures among children is longitudinal: heavy metal “buildup” in the body, rather than a single-time exposure/overdose. (I.e., you don’t need to lose sleep over that jar of rice-and-carrots your little one ate three days ago.) Lastly, many children in the US are at greater risk of harmful exposures from their drinking water, old plastic toys, and chipped paint (all of which may contain lead) than from their diets.
Recent findings on heavy metals in baby food -- and the 2021 Congressional report investigating them -- appear terrifying: a vast majority (90+%) of traditional baby foods on the market contain heavy metals. But, as the Healthy Babies Bright Futures report “What’s in my baby’s food?” notes: “on the spectrum from worry to action, parents can choose to act.”
It’s possible to minimize your child’s exposure -- by eighty percent! -- with some simple dietary swaps. *The biggest culprits by far are rice-based foods, which are nearly universally high in arsenic; avoiding things like rice puffs, rice cereals, rice teethers, etc. can take you pretty far on its own. Instead of rice cereals, look for other options like oat, barley, millet, wheat, spelt, amaranth, or quinoa -- just make sure whatever you choose is appropriately prepared/processed for your child’s age. (BTW, Amara’s toddler yogurt smoothie melts are a perfect alternative to rice puffs! They’re delicious, melt-in-your-mouth, rice-free, and their ingredients are sourced from Europe, where heavy metals are highly regulated.) Cutting down on (or eliminating!) fruit juices, which often contain traces of lead and arsenic, is another great tactic. And offering a wide variety of fresh whole vegetables and fruits also helps reduce exposure.
Organic foods are not immune to metals from farming, but they could contain lower levels of these metals due to organic farming practices (namely, not using pesticides). Similarly, it’s possible that foods grown on more rural farms farther from cities, highways, or mining regions have fewer heavy metal residues.
Here are the top five changes Healthy Baby Bright Futures recommends parents make to limit their baby’s exposures to dietary heavy metals:
In short, these THREE basic changes can all help decrease dietary heavy metal exposures:
- curb how much rice your child eats (wherever it comes from);
- limit or do away with juice;
- focus on variety in your child’s diet.
Just remember: avoiding certain foods should not come at the cost of offering your child a balanced, nutritious diet of diverse foods!
Things are changing. The FDA’s Closer to Zero plan is aimed at limiting toxic dietary exposures among babies and children -- it’s a four-step initiative designed to determine maximum levels for various foods and implement a data monitoring system to supervise them. It’s underway already, but will likely take a few more years before it’s in full swing.
In the long run, it’s possible that we’ll see heavy metal levels in packaged baby foods decrease across the board (perhaps even to the extent that they’re lower than homemade foods). In the meantime, though, take a deep breath, and focus on implementing the easy changes above to reduce your child’s exposure.
Oh, and guess what? None of Amara’s baby foods or toddler snacks contain rice, so if you’re looking for an easy swap, we can help! Amara’s complementary baby foods are made from real organic ingredients (and NO added sugar, chemicals, and all the rest), delivering all the convenience of store-bought baby foods without any of the trade-offs. It’s like homemade baby food, but easier. 👏 And Amara’s toddler yogurt smoothie melts are the perfect snack for littles, whether you’re on-the-go or hanging at home: they’re no mess, no fuss, and no additives. Try this at home: taste test! Compare Amara yogurt melts to any kind of rice puffs… which one would you rather eat?