After scary headlines about “neurotoxins” in baby food and rice cereals, many parents are confused about what’s safe to feed their kids. We asked a toxicologist to explain what this means.
In October 2019, Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), a partnership of nonprofit environmental organizations, released a widely publicized report about heavy metals in baby food. It analyzed cereals, purees and juices and found that most of the products contained heavy metals, including lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium, which can affect developing brains. Of course, the dose makes the poison, and despite the alarming headlines, none of the amounts of metals in the HBBF report actually exceed Health Canada’s limits on what it considers safe. Nonetheless, many major media outlets, including CNN and NBC, ran stories warning parents that 95 percent of baby foods “are unsafe and contain toxic metals.”
So how freaked out should parents be? Do we need to make dietary changes? We spoke to Ryan Prosser, an environmental toxicologist at the University of Guelph (and father to an 18-month-old) to tell us what’s really going on.
Q: How concerned should we be about heavy metals in baby food?
We should be concerned about heavy metals in all food—not just in baby food, but in food generally, because they can have adverse effects, especially for the developing brain. It isn’t new that we’re exposed to metals in our food. So it’s not a “the sky is falling” issue, but it’s something that should be monitored closely.
Q: The HBBF report found that four of the seven of the rice products exceeded the Food and Drug Administration’s proposed limit for inorganic arsenic of 100 parts per billion (ppb). But Health Canada—which uses their own, more robust data—is still saying that heavy metals in baby food is “not a safety issue.” Why the disconnect?
Health Canada and this advocacy organization have different standards for what they consider a safe upper limit—especially for arsenic. Health Canada doesn’t have a maximum level of arsenic for infant rice cereal specifically, but they have set limits for arsenic in other food products. (Fish protein should be 350 ppb or less, beverages should be 100 ppb or less.) The EU established a limit of 100 ppb in rice products for children in 2016 based on newer science exposing the dangers of arsenic, and the U.S. has proposed this limit too. Meanwhile, HBBF thinks the level should be 25 ppb.
The challenge for any regulatory body is setting a limit that is protective and also achievable. It appears that the E.U. and the U.S. feel that 100 ppb of arsenic is protective and achievable so I think we could bring that in here, too. And Health Canada appears to be considering a specific limit for infant and children’s food. As we learn more about the dangers of arsenic, regulatory bodies are revisiting what they consider safe.
Q: Where are these heavy metals coming from?
What you really need to know about arsenic in baby cerealA big source is naturally occurring metals in the soil and rock. Arsenic occurs naturally. And in western Canada, cadmium has been a problem in wheat just because it’s naturally found in the soils out west, and because of the ability of wheat plants to take up cadmium. [Editor’s note: none of the products tested exceeded the levels that Health Canada considers safe for cadmium.]
With lead, we used leaded gasoline for a long time and, and when the gas was burned, the lead was released into the atmosphere and then deposited back on the ground. We also used paints with lead and there was even lead in the solder used to seal food tins, if you can imagine. Metals like arsenic and mercury have been released into the environment through various industrial processes.
Q: Are metals increasing in the environment and in our food system?
It depends on the food we’re talking about and it depends on the metal, but in most cases, it’s actually going down since we started tracking the data in recent decades. For instance, the data shows that our exposure to lead has gone down considerably in the last 30 to 40 years. That’s because we’re more aware of the problems these metals can cause, and there is more regulation around the use of heavy metals. So that’s reassuring, but we can always do more.
Q: Is there anything that parents can do to decrease their children’s exposure to heavy metals?
One thing is to limit the amount of processed food. If you take a rice and dry it and make it into flour, you end up concentrating anything that might be in that product. So that’s a danger with things like rice cereals and rice crackers. I understand it—I have a toddler—and sometimes as a parent, you’re so busy and the processed food is convenient. But I think if we can limit the amount of processed foods, there are a number of health benefits to that, and one of them may be exposure to heavy metals.
It’s a good idea to take precautions with rice in the non-processed form, too. Rice is grown under flooded conditions, which draws out a form of arsenic in the soil. In addition, the rice plant is very efficient at taking up arsenic. [Editor’s note: Brown rice has been shown to have higher arsenic levels than white rice. Cooking rice in a ratio of six parts water to one part rice, and draining the water afterwards, has been shown to almost halve arsenic levels.]
You can also buy more local food. When it comes to lead, I think a majority of the food grown here in Canada is pretty good, because we phased out the use of lead a while ago, but there are other regions where that’s not the case, so any food coming from those places has a greater risk of being contaminated.
Q: Does buying organic food help with heavy metal exposure?
No, because the big determinant is the soil that they’re being grown in, and the type of plant it is. Some plants are just more efficient at absorbing certain metals, whether they’re organically farmed or conventionally farmed.