Making baby food at home from store-bought products isn't going to reduce the amount of toxic heavy metals in the food you eat, according to a new report published exclusively by CNN.
"We haven't found any evidence to suggest that homemade baby food from store-bought products is better than store-bought when it comes to heavy metal contamination," said paper co-author Jane Houlihan. , director of research for Healthy Babies, Bright Futures (HBBF).
The HBBF, an alliance of nonprofits, scientists and donors, which produced the report, has a stated mission to reduce infant exposure to neurotoxic chemicals.
The researchers tested 288 foods purchased at stores and farmers markets across the United States, including cereals, fruits, vegetables, snack foods, teething foods, and familiar items that babies eat, such as cereals and rice cakes, for lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium.
These heavy metals are among the top 10 chemicals of greatest concern for infants and children, according to the World Health Organization.
"Exposure to toxic metals can be detrimental to the developing brain. It has been linked to problems with learning, cognition, and behavior," according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
95% of baby foods tested in the US contain toxic metals, report says
The researchers also analyzed data from 7,000 other published food tests conducted by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
The results showed that 94% of manufactured baby foods, family foods, and homemade purees made from purchased raw foods contained detectable amounts of one or more heavy metals.
Lead was found in 90% of manufactured baby foods purchased by people for the report and in 80% of family store-bought foods and homemade purees.
According to the AAP, there is no safe level of lead.
Arsenic was found in 68% of store-bought baby foods and 72% of family foods purchased or prepared at home.
Cadmium was found in 65% of purchased baby foods and 60% of household foods, and mercury was in 7% of purchased baby foods and 10% of household foods.
(The highest levels of mercury are found in shellfish, which were not considered in this analysis.)
The new report is a follow-up to an analysis published in November 2019 in which Healthy Babies, Bright Futures looked at 168 foods purchased from leading baby food manufacturers.
That analysis found that 95% of store-bought baby foods contained lead, 73% contained arsenic, 75% contained cadmium and 32% contained mercury.
A quarter of the foods tested that year contained all four heavy metals.
"After that report, we saw a lot of people saying that you could avoid this problem by making baby food at home, so we decided to check it out," Houlihan said.
"We suspect that we would find heavy metals in all kinds of foods because they are ubiquitous contaminants in the environment."
"And that's exactly what we found: heavy metals were in food from all sections of the store," Houlihan said.
"What this says is that because the FDA is setting standards for heavy metals in baby food, they have to go beyond the baby food aisle."
What can a parent or caregiver do?
Feed the baby as many types of foods as possible, said pediatrician Dr. Mark Corkins, chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition who was not involved in the study.
"If food is spread out and a wide variety of options are offered, there will be less toxicity," Corkins said.
"And nutritionally that's always been the right thing to do to get the most micronutrients out of the food you eat."
Does it help to buy organic products?
The report found that buying organic produce also did not reduce heavy metal levels, which is "not surprising," said Corkins, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center and Le Bonheur Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
"It's the soil and the water that are contaminated with arsenic and other heavy metals, so it doesn't matter if it's organic or traditional farming methods," Corkins said.
This would apply to local crops or even backyard gardens, if the soil has not been verified to be free of metals.
However, buying organic produce can help you avoid other toxins that the new report didn't take into account, such as herbicides and pesticides, said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of environmental pediatrics at NYU Langone Health who was not involved in the study.
"There are other benefits to eating organic food, including reducing synthetic pesticides that are known to be just as bad for babies, if not more of a problem," Trasande said.
"We've seen multiple studies show significant effects of synthetic pesticides on children's cognitive function as a result of prenatal exposure. We've seen images of the brain in which certain parts that are crucial for higher-order functioning are smaller afterward. of the exhibition," he added.
"A simple step would be to just say eat organic, because regardless of what we're talking about in this report, it's good for you."
Experts agree that combating toxins in baby food is a task for government organizations, which will need to work with farmers, suppliers and manufacturers to institute standards and safeguards.
In the meantime, parents can make a difference.
"Making one simple decision each day to reduce children's exposure will make a difference, whether it's moving away from rice-based snacks and serving a diced apple instead, or choosing not to serve carrots and sweet potatoes every day." Houlihan said.
"With heavy metals and other toxins, the risks accumulate throughout life," he added.
"So even if some of these foods were served to a child until her second birthday, starting from there to reduce exposure to toxins is going to add up. Every choice is important."
less contaminated food
The foods tested low in metals contain one-eighth as much heavy metal contamination as foods with the highest levels, Houlihan said.
These are foods that can be "eaten freely," the report suggests.
Fresh bananas, with heavy metal levels of 1.8 parts per billion, were the least contaminated of the foods analyzed for the report.
This represents an "82-fold difference in the average level of total heavy metals" with respect to the most contaminated food, rice cakes, which yielded 147 parts per billion, according to the research.
After bananas, the least contaminated foods were grits, manufactured baby food, pumpkin, lamb, apples, pork, eggs, oranges and watermelon, in that order.
Other foods with lower levels of contamination were green beans, peas, cucumbers and home-cooked pureed meats, according to the report.
The use of infant formula made from lead-free tap water was recommended.
Lead-free, tested tap water is always a good choice.
Milk is also a good option, but only for babies 12 months and older.
According to the report, some healthy foods low in metals, such as yogurt, unsweetened applesauce, beans, cheese, hard-boiled eggs and grapes cut lengthwise, were good snack choices for babies .
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Fresh and frozen fruits, including those used in homemade purees, are also good options.
But it's not a good idea to use canned fruit, if you can avoid it: "Tests find lead 30 times more often in canned fruit than in fresh and frozen fruit," the report said.
Parents and caregivers can also reduce their babies' exposure to heavy metals by making some smart substitutions, according to the report.
According to the report, using a frozen banana for a teething baby instead of a rice-based teething cracker or rice pancake could reduce total heavy metal intake by 95%.
Another suggested teething food is chilled, peeled cucumber.
Avoid or limit these foods
The most contaminated foods consumed by babies are all rice-based: "Rice cakes, rice buns, crispy rice cereals and brown rice without cooking water are highly contaminated with inorganic arsenic, which is the form more toxic than arsenic," Houlihan said.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element found in soil, water, and air, and since rice is grown in water, it is especially good at absorbing inorganic arsenic.
("Inorganic" is a chemical term and has nothing to do with the method of cultivation.)
Brown and wild rice are the most detrimental, as the bran contains the highest concentrations of arsenic.
Previous research has shown that even low levels of exposure to inorganic arsenic can affect a baby's neurological development.
A meta-analysis of studies on the subject found that a 50% increase in urinary arsenic levels would be associated with a 0.4 point decrease in IQ in children between the ages of 5 and 15.
Testing by the HBBF revealed that rice cakes were the most contaminated with inorganic arsenic, followed by crispy rice cereals, puffed rice products, and brown rice.
The report recommended avoiding these foods entirely, unless the brown rice is cooked with extra water that is poured off before consumption (just like pasta).
According to the report, it's best to do this with all rice, including white and wild, as it can reduce arsenic levels by up to 60%.
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Rice-based teething crackers and white rice are next on the list of the most contaminated, according to the report.
White rice is processed to remove the outer layers, but experts say arsenic levels are still high enough to be of concern, especially if rice is a daily food.
"In our tests, inorganic arsenic averaged 100 parts per billion in brown rice infant cereals and 74 parts per billion in white rice infant cereals," Houlihan said.
"Brown rice cereal has been recalled by baby food companies due to its high levels of arsenic."
Parents and caregivers can help by staying away from high-arsenic white rice varieties grown in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, or just "in America," and choosing instead the lowest-arsenic basmati rice from California, India and Pakistan, as well as sushi rice from the United States, according to the report.
Serve these foods rarely
After rice-based foods, the analysis found the highest levels of heavy metals in raisins, non-rice teething cookies, raisin granola bars and oatmeal rings.
But these weren't the only foods of concern: Nuts, grape juice, teething tapioca crackers and sunflower seed butter all contained elevated amounts of at least one toxic metal, according to the report.
"Many foods have a unique heavy metal profile," Houlihan explained.
"For example, we saw very high levels of cadmium in things like spinach, lettuce and peanut butter."
However, the human body doesn't absorb cadmium as easily as other heavy metals, and for that reason "it's not as high a level of concern," Houlihan added.
"There's also not that much evidence that cadmium is neurotoxic to babies, or at least the body of evidence isn't there at the same levels as lead and arsenic," he said.
"The damage caused by lead and arsenic are not reversible: they are permanent impacts on IQ, learning ability and behavior, so it's a big problem."
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Roots and tubers can have higher levels of heavy metals like lead and arsenic because they grow underground.
In fact, the research found that baby's favorite foods, such as carrots, sweet potatoes, squash and many types of potatoes, had concerning levels of heavy metals.
According to the report, even the same foods could have varying levels of toxic metals.
For example, a shopper in Raleigh, North Carolina bought a sweet potato with 60.7 parts per billion of lead, 10 times higher than store-bought mashed sweet potatoes.
A Chicago shopper purchased a fresh carrot with eight times more arsenic than the ready-made carrot baby food she brought home, according to research.
However, shoppers in Tennessee and California found the opposite: their fresh produce had trace levels of heavy metals compared to the manufactured baby food brands they purchased.
"As a parent, you don't know what you're getting off the produce shelves," Houlihan said. Is it high because of the crop, the particular type of sweet potato or carrot? Or is it high because it was grown in an area where the soil naturally has high levels of lead?
Answering these questions will be the responsibility of government and industry regulators, Houlihan said.
The FDA has a campaign called "Closer to Zero," for example, that could address the issue.
CNN has contacted the FDA for comment but has yet to hear back.
“And remember that if you protect the basic ingredients that parents use to make food at home, you are not only protecting babies and young children, but also pregnant women. Babies in the womb are especially vulnerable to toxins in a time when the brain grows at such a rapid rate.
Unable to know the levels of toxic metals in the soil where produce is grown, parents and caregivers should add another step to their efforts to avoid these substances, Houlihan suggested.
In addition to mixing the variety of foods and not serving the same options each day, parents can "choose different brands or varieties of foods or shop at different stores from week to week to avoid choosing a high-metal source on a regular basis."