We have rules for just about everything. There are rules telling us how to drive, where to park, and how tall one must be to ride the roller coaster at an amusement park. There are even statutes that will send the law man after you should you happen to clog a toilet in a public park. (That one’s actually a felony, so be sure to bring a plunger with you after that feast of campfire beans and smores.) Microwaves come with warning labels advising people not to microwave their pets, because one lady sued after nuking her cat to dry the feline off after a bath. (Spoiler alert: It didn’t end well for little fluffy, who exploded.)
Which is why you might be surprised to learn that in this day and age, there are still some rather obvious places where rules are sorely lacking. For example, rules limiting the amount of toxic substances contained in baby food? Not so much. On 3 separate occasions legislators tried to pass laws that would limit things like arsenic and lead in fruit juice and rice products, once in 2012, once in 2015 and again in 2017. Each time their efforts failed, largely due to pushback from industry lobbying.
There’s reason for concern. A 2018 study by Consumer Reports looked at 50 different foods marketed especially for infants and toddlers. They examined a variety of both organic and nonorganic brands, including Gerber, Earth’s Best, Beech-Nut and other popular brands. It was discovered that at least 1 dangerous heavy metal was detected in every product. Fifteen of the 50 contained toxic contaminants at levels high enough to pose possible health risks to a child eating one serving or less per day.
A certain amount of contaminants in food is unavoidable. Trace amounts of toxic metals are part of the earth’s environment, and inevitably make their way into food. Arsenic, for example, can be found in soil and water, and is then taken up by plants. Rice is especially high in arsenic content, partly because of the way the plant draws it in and stores it, and partly a consequence of the fact that it’s grown in fields flooded with water, which means more of the metal to consume, especially if it was grown in areas of the world where water has a high arsenic content.
But it wasn’t just natural, organic arsenic that was found in these products. Many of them contained measurable amounts of inorganic arsenic as well, which is much more toxic. Inorganic arsenic comes from things like air pollution, mining and pesticides. Heavy metals and other toxins can also be added to food unintentionally through the manufacturing and packaging process.
So what are parents to do with this information? How about on the count of 3, everyone throws their hands up in the air, freaks out, and runs around in circles like a crazy person screaming about how their baby is going to die because they were fed a meal of pureed rice and chicken. Okay, I’m kidding, don’t actually do that. Let’s give our toddlers a lesson in what calm and stable behavior looks like; Lord knows they could use the practice.
As with every discussion of ordinary chemical exposures, there’s no need to panic. We’re all swimming in a sea of man-made toxins anyway (I said don’t panic!), and the type of low-level exposures over limited periods of time that would come from eating tainted baby food isn’t likely to cause substantial damage or turn your child into a nitwit. Although that would make a convenient excuse for why they keep putting beads up their nose.
But I think we can all agree that American parents deserve a little better, and it’s time to start demanding it. Notably, roughly a third of the products tested by Consumer Reports DD NOT contain worrisome amounts of contaminants. Which means other companies could achieve the same result, if they simply took a few extra precautions. “If industry can do a better job of sourcing the raw food, that would go a long way” towards reducing this risk, says James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Reports. “And then if [manufacturers] consider contamination through internal pathways–equipment, processor and the container they use for the food–I think we can get there.” *1
In the meantime, just as soon as you put down that paper bag you’re breathing into, here are a few precautionary steps parents can take:
1. Vote with your wallet. Look up the findings from Consumer Reports and reward those brands who do their due diligence.
2. Try to feed your baby a more balanced diet. Many parents get hooked on rice cereals and other rice products early on, feeding their baby these things several times a day. Switch things up so that your baby gets other grains besides just rice. That will not only keep the toxins down, but it has other health benefits as well.
3. Make your own baby food whenever you have the time. Believe it or not, for thousands of years parents fed their children without a single Gerber bottle in sight. Baby food is merely human food that’s been mushed or pureed, so you can feed your baby all kinds of things that don’t come in a small jar. Food you make on your own will almost always be healthier.
4. Cooking rice in plenty of water can help flush out contaminants.
*1: Scientific American, Jan. 201, p. 7