Just this week, the FDA released draft guidance for limits on the amount of lead in baby food and other foods meant for kids under 2 (1). After the release of the Healthy Babies Bright Future study in 2019, it seems that heavy metals are in the news more often than ever. What does this actually mean for parents? And what will these new limits do?
This post may contain affiliate links and when you click on the links I may earn a small commission at no charge to you. As an Amazon affiliate, I earn a commission from qualifying purchases.
Take Home Message
There is cause for concern, but not alarm with heavy metals. The AAP stated “low levels of heavy metals found in baby foods likely are a relatively small part of a child’s overall heavy metal exposure risk.” There is no benefit to having heavy metals in our food, but the levels are low and the risk may be exaggerated.
Lead and other heavy metals in baby food are not a new topic. We began regular testing of these levels in 2011 and have made some big improvements over the past decade. Arsenic levels in rice are 37% lower than they were when we started testing and levels in juice have decreased by 63% (2).
The FDA has issued draft guidance in the past. In 2013, they issued guidance on limits of arsenic in apple juice and in 2016, they issued limits on arsenic in infant rice cereal. The issue with draft guidance, however, is that it is not enforceable. Some companies voluntarily comply, but if they do not, there is no consequence.
In 2019, the Healthy Babies Bright Futures study came out and really kicked things into action. They tested 168 containers of baby food from a variety of brands for lead, cadmium, mercury, and arsenic. They found that 95% of the containers they tested contained at least 1 of these metals with 26% containing all 4 (3).
In February of 2021, Congress looked into the problem and were overall unhappy with how things were being handled. They concluded that we needed to do more. In March 2021 Congress drafted the Baby Food Safety Act and the FDA started the Closer to Zero Action Plan.
Closer to Zero Action Plan
This goal of this plan is to reduce dietary exposure to heavy metals to as low as possible, while maintaining access to nutritional foods (4). There are 4 steps to the plan: evaluate the science, propose draft action levels, consult with stake holders, and finalize action levels.
Historically, we have had issues finalizing action levels. This remains true as of now.
In April of 2022, the FDA released draft guidance for the amount of lead in juice(5). The guidance recommends limiting the amount of lead to 10 parts per billion for apple juice and 20 parts per billion for other types of juice. Currently, up to 50 parts per billion is allowed.
On January 24, 2023, draft guidance for lead in processed baby foods and foods that are intended for kids under age 2 was released (6). It recommends reducing the amount of lead to 10 parts per billion for fruits, vegetables, mixtures, yogurts, custards, puddings, and single ingredient meats. It also recommends limiting root vegetables and dry cereals to 20 parts per billion.
The plan outlines a timeline for arsenic and cadmium guidance to be released in 2024. The FDA is working on a study on the role of seafood consumption in child growth and development prior to releasing guidance for mercury.
Why not remove lead in baby food completely?
Lead and other heavy metals are present in our environment. They are found in the earth’s crust. They can be in the soil and absorbed into the plants themselves. Animals eat these plants and the metals get into the animals. It’s not something we can just wash off or easily remove.
What can parents do?
The number one thing you can do is offer your child a wide variety of foods. This can help prevent accumulation of any one heavy metal. It is also good to prevent picky eating and meet your child’s micronutrient needs as well.
Store Bought vs Homemade
Because the heavy metals are found in the raw ingredients, preparing your child’s food at home may not decrease their exposure. You cannot wash off the heavy metals and there is currently no way to test for them at home.
If you are opting to purchase baby food at the store, check labels for ingredients. Many will use carrots, sweet potato, and juice in blends you may not expect. While there is nothing wrong with these ingredients, you do want to make sure that you’re giving your child a variety. Try to make sure that not all of your child’s food includes these foods. Think about if you were eating the foods in non-puree form: would you eat carrots at every meal? Probably not.
The Clean Label Purity Award is given to companies that are taking the extra steps to minimize exposure to known chemicals of concern. You can look for brands with this award. If you can’t find any, know that the amount of lead and other heavy metals in baby food is low and will continue be lower in the future.
Rice is known to contain arsenic, however it is a staple in many cultures. There is no need to avoid all rice. I do recommend avoiding infant rice cereal. If you are starting with infant cereal as an iron source, opt for blends or other grains.
You can soak rice to help lower the amount of arsenic in it. Also, you can cook it like pasta with extra water. Once the rice is cooked, you dump the water. This allows some of the arsenic to leach into the water.
Many baby snacks are made with rice. Most babies do not need snacks. Breastmilk or formula acts as their snack between meals. If you are looking for snack ideas, just think of mini meals. For puffs or teethers, see if you can find non-rice options.
Again, there is nothing wrong with having rice in the diet. Rice just tends to be an extremely high percentage of the diet for babies.
Carrots and Sweet Potatoes
Because these foods are actually roots, they tend to store more metals. They are also added to a lot of baby foods because they are sweet and contain vitamin A. You can keep these foods in the diet, just try to make sure they’re not in every jar or pouch of baby food you purchase.
Other sources of vitamin A include butternut squash, pumpkin, spinach, and turnips.
The AAP recommends no juice before age 1. After age 1, limit it to 4 ounces. Water will be the best choice for hydration for the most part. To limit heavy metal exposure, you can try offering the whole fruit or pureed fruit.
New FDA Draft Guidance – What does it mean?
The FDA is very clear that this guidance is not enforceable. That being said, they have plans on making these recommendations into enforceable guidelines in the future. Some companies will comply with these guidelines in anticipation of that. Many companies are already well below the recommended levels and will not need to make any changes.
If this is something that you feel passionately about, the FDA does have periods for comment. You can also write to your legislators and let them know that you care. The more they hear about something, the more likely they are to push for a change.
Krystyn Parks is a Registered Dietitian and Lactation Consultant who specializes in feeding children. She has a Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University Long Beach. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant and has been registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration since 2013.