Beware of toxic heavy metals in baby foods, congressional group warns

babechow-200x300Although parents exult when their babies start eating solids, moms and dads may be dishing up for their little darlings unexpected and harmful ingredients in commercially prepared foods — heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, and lead at levels that may exceed federal limits.

A subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform received lots of media attention when it publicly reported its findings on problems it says it sees with baby products from the likes of Gerber, Walmart, Campbell Soup, and Sprout organics.

Some of the makers, at the panel’s request, provided data on their products and testing for toxins, while others declined the disclosure of did not respond. As the Washington Post reported:

“The [subcommittee] report … found heavy metals in rice cereals, sweet potato puree, juices and sweet snack puffs made by some of the most trusted names in baby food. Gerber, Beech-Nut, HappyBABY (made by Nurture) and Earth’s Best Organic baby foods (made by Hain Celestial Group) complied with the committee’s request to submit internal testing documents. Campbell Soup, which sells Plum Organics baby foods, Walmart (its private brand is Parent’s Choice) and Sprout Foods declined to cooperate, according to members of the subcommittee. The committee said the findings show the need for more stringent regulation of commercial baby food, including FDA standards for heavy metals, as well as mandatory testing for heavy metals.

“‘Over the last decade advocates and scientists have brought this to the attention of the Food and Drug Administration,’ [said] subcommittee Chair Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) … ‘The FDA must set standards and regulate this industry much more closely, starting now. It’s shocking that parents are basically being completely left in the lurch by their government.’”

The FDA said it is reviewing the subcommittee report, which was blasted by GOP members of the panel, partly because the findings assailed what were said to be inaction by the previous administration.

Makers said they toxins that the House panel focused on are naturally occurring in certain foods and do not reach levels in the foods to imperil infants or their development. Several of the heavy metals, studies show, can be damaging to babies and infants, notably to their neurological development, when taken in sufficient amounts.

Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for the Environmental Defense Fund, which has worked on lead in food for 25 years, told the Washington Post:

“Exposure to these toxic heavy metals affects babies’ brain development and nervous system, it affects their behavior, permanently decreases their IQ and, if you want to boil it down to dollars, their lifetime earnings potential.”

In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damage that can be inflicted on babies and infants due to various injuries, including by dangerous and defective products.

Consumers of all ages, alas, confront a confusing blur of choices and claims when it comes to the foods they eat and whether they are safe, nutritious, and deliver good taste and value. Big Food, political partisans, and experts themselves have fostered great confusion about food fundamentals, including what rigorous scientific findings show or do not about what people stuff in their mouths.

For grownups anxious about babies early eating, the New York Times reported this:

“The [subcommittee] report called on the FDA to set standards for heavy metals in baby food that will protect infants against neurological injury, and not just reduce the risk of developing illnesses like cancer in the longer term. The investigators said the agency should require baby food manufacturers to test finished products, not just ingredients, for heavy metals; report the test results on food labels so consumers can see them; and phase out ingredients like rice, which may be loaded with heavy metals.

“In the meantime, parents can protect babies by not feeding them infant rice cereal or other products like snacks made with rice flour. Healthy-sounding snacks like Nurture Happy Baby’s apple and broccoli puffs, or its strawberry and beet puffs, contained high levels of arsenic, according to the report.

“Though rice cereal is often one of a baby’s first foods, both white and brown rice contain levels of inorganic arsenic that are up to six times higher than some other cereals made from grains like barley, oatmeal, organic quinoa, wheat, or buckwheat, according to the nonprofit group Healthy Babies Bright Futures.

“The group issued a report in 2019 on heavy metals in baby foods. It also recommends that parents not use teething biscuits that can contain heavy metals and cause tooth decay. Parents should not give babies juice to drink, the group says, and should provide a variety of fruits and vegetables, so as to minimize exposure to carrots and sweet potatoes, which may be high in lead and cadmium.”

That gives us something to chew on as we get to work, as we must, to ensure that the foods for all of us are affordable, safe, plentiful, and desirable.

Photo credit: Unsplash, @derekowensheart
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