The first solid food for many babies is rice cereal. It is a childhood staple, commonly recommended by pediatricians. And it is often poisoned, at least a little. Studies have found that many brands contain measurable amounts of inorganic arsenic, the most toxic type.
It's Not Just Rice: An August 2018 study by Consumer Reports tested 50 foods made for babies and toddlers, including organic and non-organic brands such as Gerber, Earth's Best, Beech-Nut, and other popular labels, and found evidence of a at least dangerous load of metal in each product. Fifteen of the 50 contained enough contaminants to pose a potential health risk to a child who eats one serving or less a day.
Heavy metals can affect cognitive development in children, who are especially at risk due to their smaller size and the tendency to absorb more of these substances than adults. Inorganic arsenic in drinking water has been found to lower children's IQ scores by five to six points. And as heavy metals accumulate in the body over time, they can increase the risk of cancer, reproductive problems, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cognitive problems.
Of course, finding out that your favorite brand is contaminated is not a reason to panic. Low levels of exposure for short periods are unlikely to cause devastating effects, and parents should focus on reducing the overall levels of these toxic substances in their children's total diet to limit the damage.
Heavy metals are naturally on Earth and are present in soil and water. But pesticides, mining and pollution are increasing in concentrations, and agricultural and food manufacturing processes can contribute even more. Some crops inevitably absorb more heavy metals. Rice, for example, readily absorbs arsenic both because of its unique physiology and because it is often grown in fields flooded with water, which is a primary source of the metal.
Cereal manufacturers are clearly capable of keeping baby food free of poisons: About a third of the products Consumer Reports tested did not contain worrying levels of metals. Companies just don't take enough security measures. "If the industry can do a better job sourcing raw foods, that would help [reduce the hazard]," says James Dickerson, Consumer Reports chief scientific officer. "And then if [manufacturers] consider contamination through internal routes (equipment, processes and containers they use for food), I think we can get there."
Some companies are already trying to investigate the sources of contamination in their products and reduce them. They should go ahead and be transparent about these efforts. But the best chance for real change for food companies is likely to come with regulation.
There are currently no rules in many countries for acceptable levels of heavy metals in baby food. In 2012, 2015, and 2017, the US Congress tried and failed to pass legislation imposing limits on arsenic and lead in fruit juices and rice products. The FDA proposed to issue new limits on the amount of arsenic allowed in rice cereal in 2016 and in apple juice in 2013, but neither of these proposals came to fruition. A report from the Government Accountability Office from March 2018 found that the FDA has not moved fast enough to establish the rules or communicate the potential risk to the public. The agency needs to set safe and stringent targets, supported by scientific studies, for these substances, ideally setting incremental benchmarks that decrease allowable levels over time.
And this is just the beginning. In 2018, a group of scientists and policy experts suggested a variety of interventions at every step of the farm-to-fork journey. These steps would help combat the problem both in the US and abroad, especially in developing countries where toxic substances in baby food can be devastating for children already suffering from poor nutrition.
On the one hand, researchers need to do more studies on which foods in our diet are the main contributors of heavy metals and the best ways to reduce pollution in each of those crops. Food manufacturers can perform better and more frequent testing of their source crops, as well as their factory methods.
Scientists, doctors and governments can also better communicate these health risks and the best ways to avoid them to the public. For example, cooking rice in copious amounts of water can help remove contaminants, and parents should feed babies a greater variety of whole grains rather than just rice.
There are many ways to deal with this problem. Congress, the FDA, the food industry, scientists, and physicians must come together to address a serious threat to our most vulnerable populations.
Original article (in English)
This article was originally published under the title “Toxic Baby Foods? Seriously?" in Scientific American 320, 1, 7 (January 2019)
doi: 10.1038 / scientificamerican0119-7