Pregnancy

The FDA is finally taking steps to reduce lead in baby food

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced new steps today that aim to limit the amount of lead in baby food. After recent reports found high levels of heavy metal toxins in both store-bought baby food and homemade purees, the agency unveiled the new guidelines as part of its Closer to Zero action plan, which works to reduce children’s exposure to heavy metal toxins found in food, including lead, arsenic and cadmium. 

The proposed limits aim to cap lead levels at 10 parts per billion in fruits, vegetables, yogurts and meats, and 20 parts per billion in root vegetables and in dry infant cereals. The agency did not yet set specific targets for grain-based snacks such as puffs and teething crackers, which have both been shown to be high in heavy metals across the board. 

“For babies and young children who eat the foods covered in today’s draft guidance, the FDA estimates that these action levels could result in as much as a 24-27% reduction in exposure to lead from these foods,” said FDA Commissioner Robert M. Califf, MD, in a press release.

Because the draft guidance is not yet mandatory, baby food manufacturers have time before they have to comply. If the guidance is finalized after the 60-day period for public comment, it would be enforceable, allowing the agency to recall or seize products or even recommend criminal prosecution. The new guidelines complement the steps the agency took last year to regulate the levels of lead in juice and rice cereal. 

A mixed response to new FDA levels for lead in baby food 

Even low levels of lead exposure in young children can be harmful, as the guidelines explain, noting that lead exposure during early childhood has been linked to developmental delays, learning disabilities and behavioral difficulties. “Because lead can accumulate in the body, even low-level chronic exposure can be hazardous over time,” the guideline authors state. But it’s not just lead that’s an issue in early childhood brain development—other heavy metals such as arsenic, which can be found in high levels in brown rice and brown-rice based products, can also wreak havoc. The current guidelines don’t address these other toxins.

Related: Heavy metal toxins abound in homemade baby food, too, report finds

Some experts applaud the agency’s actions. “This is really important progress for babies,” said Scott Faber, vice president of public affairs for the Environmental Working Group, to The New York Times. “We were grateful that F.D.A. and the Biden administration has made reducing toxic metals in baby food a priority.”

But others think the steps are not drastic enough. “It doesn’t go far enough to protect babies from neurodevelopmental damage from lead exposures,” said Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a nonprofit which released a report on lead in homemade baby food, to The Times. “Lead is in almost every baby food we’ve tested, and the action levels that F.D.A. has set will influence almost none of that food.”

The newly proposed limits may work to address products with the highest amounts of lead found in third-party testing, Houlihan notes, but otherwise the majority of products can be continued to be offered without changes. 

How to reduce your child’s exposure to lead in baby food

It’s difficult to limit lead exposure without also limiting the availability of certain foods, which can be rich in nutrients like vitamins and minerals that are key for growth. 

Lead and other heavy metals abound in the natural environment, which is why they’re found both in store-bought products and in homemade purees. Root vegetables such as sweet potatoes and carrots, for example, tend to be higher in lead and heavy metals because of how they’re grown—in soil. Peeling them before cooking is one option, but to cut out all root vegetables from your child’s diet could mean they’ll miss out on a good source of vitamin A and fiber, for example. 

Related: 5 tips on making safe, brain boosting baby food at home

To work to reduce your child’s exposure to lead and heavy metals in food, the key is to offer a wide variety of foods from a plethora of sources, so that you don’t end up relying on a small number of options that could be higher in toxins than others.  

“To support child growth and development, we recommend parents and caregivers feed children a varied and nutrient-dense diet across and within the main food groups of vegetables, fruits, grains, dairy and protein foods,” said Susan Mayne, Ph.D., director of the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition. “This approach helps your children get important nutrients and may reduce potential harmful effects from exposure to contaminants from foods that take up contaminants from the environment.”

Which baby foods should you offer or avoid to reduce lead exposure?

Here’s a short list of what to serve, limit and avoid when offering your infant food. If you have more questions, be sure to reach out to your pediatrician for further guidance. The parent guide from Healthy Babies Bright Futures is a good resource to reference as well.

  • Avoid any baby food products made with rice, including white or brown rice, rice milk, brown rice syrup or other rice products, as brown rice is a primary source of inorganic arsenic based on the way it’s grown.
  • Avoid any baby cereals made with rice, opting for oats, barley or mixed grains instead.
  • Avoid puffed rice snacks, rusks and teethers
  • Only rarely serve dried fruit, especially raisins
  • Limit or rotate canned fruit, opting for fresh or frozen fruit instead
  • Limit or rotate cantaloupe and leafy greens like baby spinach. Avoid serving full-grown spinach.
  • Avoid serving grape juice
  • Avoid serving peanut butter every day. Limit serving sunflower seed butter, which is high in cadmium.
  • Limit or rotate root vegetables and tubers, like sweet potatoes, carrots and beets, and peel them before cooking to remove potential contaminants on the surface. “We recommend that parents vary the source by choosing from different brands, varieties, or stores each week to avoid accidentally serving a high-metal source often,” note the report authors.
  • Advocate for change. Reach out to your representatives and government agencies to take strict action and support strong limits on heavy metals in food.

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