Heavy Metals in Baby Food: How to Mitigate Risk of Toxicity
At Oath, we’ve gotten a flood of questions about the recent coverage of a government report on toxic levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury in leading baby foods.
The first thing to know is that this problem is not at all new. This report and the technology to measure the metals may be new, but the existence of these heavy metals have been around for a long time. All plant materials absorb elements from their environment. Many plants that make their way into baby food absorb heavy metals such as those listed in their report, and some recent organic pesticides have been there for a long time. Many of us went through our childhood partaking in these products and have ended up fine, and it’s more likely than not that your baby is fine as well.
The second thing to understand is the dose-response effect. Environmental health researchers have long known that certain concentrations of metals are associated with negative health outcomes. Acceptable levels in food are often set at the maximum concentration unlikely to cause an effect over time.
To understand what this means, imagine this simplified study: researchers test 100 monkeys for illness after exposure to eating 100 heavy arsenic-apples, and 50 of them fall ill. That’s a pretty bad dose! Next, they test 100 medium arsenic-apples, and 10 of them fall ill. Finally, they test 100 light-arsenic apples, and none of them fall ill. To protect all the monkeys, the scientists advise that nobody should eat medium arsenic-apples, but the light ones are okay.
From this example there are three learnings:
- One, and most importantly, there are no “zero-arsenic apples.” Arsenic occurs naturally in the world, and if you look hard enough, you will find it just about everywhere in organic material. Life, and feeding your baby, is about minimizing exposure where you can.
- Second, not everybody who ate the medium-arsenic apples had a bad effect. In fact, 90% of them didn’t! It’s not a given that something bad will happen just because you’ve had a negative exposure. Studies like these are designed to understand the effects of foods on population health, not individual health.
- The third thing to understand is the risk-benefit ratio. Some foods linked to better brain health and development also happen to be a bit higher in heavy metals. For example, fatty fish is linked to better brain health and development, including higher IQ, despite also being higher than most other foods in mercury, a heavy metal. Despite the higher mercury levels relative to other foods, the overall risk of eating it occasionally is lower than the benefits of the fish. The benefits of fish, due in part to their high quantities of nutrients required for brain development, outweigh the risks of its mercury content.
So what can you do as a parent?
The important thing, for your mental health, is not to blame yourself. Nurse Judy’s advice? It’s perfectly reasonable to feel angry or betrayed by those companies, but don’t burden yourself with the guilt. You made the best choices that you could based on the information you had. We don’t know what we don’t know and can’t manage the past, so the best thing to do now is figure out what to do from here. We know striving for “zero-arsenic” isn’t possible, but we can still take steps to mitigate the intake of toxic heavy metals.
What can you do for your toddler?
There are some basic tenants of an infant or toddler diet that we simply know are helpful. Dietitian Anna Bohnengel, MS, RD, LD recommends the following:
💧 1. Drink plenty of fluids
Adequate hydration is essential for the elimination of toxins, no matter the concern.
🌈 2. Eat the Rainbow
We know that antioxidants can have a protective effect on the body by clearing away damaged cells and free radicals. The data doesn’t yet tell us how much antioxidant diet one needs to fully clear away all damage, and it would be misleading to state that antioxidants will specifically clear away metals, but the ingredients below build on our body’s natural defense mechanisms and are universally healthy.
- Red (strawberries, tomatoes, red bell peppers)
- Yellow / Orange (cantaloupe, carrots, sweet potatoes)
- Green (broccoli, kale, spinach)
- Purple / Blue (blueberries, purple cabbage, eggplant)
🐟 3. Eat a variety of nutrient-dense foods linked to brain health
Scientists are often concerned about exposure to heavy metals because of their impact on the developing brain. While it’s not possible to avoid all heavy metal intake, dietitian Kevin C. Klatt, PhD, RD notes that we can focus our efforts on ensuring an adequate intake of nutrients critical for the developing brain, such as iron, zinc, omega 3’s, and choline. Incorporating whole foods rich in these nutrients can help to ensure the brain has all it needs to function and grow.
- Lean meats, including some red meat
- Whole eggs
- Legumes (lentils, soy)
- Seeds (chia, flax, pumpkin)
- Fatty fish (salmon, light tuna)
🌱 4. Buy organic, if you can, when it matters
Making blends of the above foods is a great approach to mitigating toxin risk. Organizations like the Environmental Working Group regularly test produce for pesticides in grocery stores to help buyers know when it’s important to buy organic. Use their Dirty Dozen to choose the foods most important to buy organic and the Clean Fifteen for foods safer to buy conventional.