DEAR DOCTOR: Is it true there's lead and heavy metals in some brands of baby and toddler foods? My husband and I both work, and it's hard to completely avoid using prepared foods.
DEAR READER: As working parents ourselves, we understand the challenge you're facing. Once babies make the transition to solid food, it's often a struggle to thread the needle between the ease and convenience of prepared foods and the satisfaction of knowing exactly what's in that spoonful of homemade food headed for your baby's mouth.
The debate about prepared versus homemade infant and toddler foods isn't new, and it has led to the emergence of an ever-growing selection of boutique and organic options. But recent tests conducted by consumer advocacy groups and a leading consumer magazine have produced data that is giving some parents pause. Last summer, Consumer Reports revealed that its analysis of 50 packaged baby and toddler foods found a measurable amount of lead, inorganic arsenic or cadmium in each sample that was tested. Foods made with rice or sweet potatoes had a strong likelihood of testing positive for high levels of these heavy metals, according to the report. Among the surprises in the data was the fact that organic foods tested positive as often as the conventional products.
This report built upon data released two years ago by the Environmental Defense Fund, a consumer advocacy group. That study, which examined data collected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration over the course of a decade, found that measurable amounts of lead were present in one-fifth of all nationally distributed infant and toddler foods.
Surprisingly, child-targeted products often contained higher levels of lead than adult products, with grape juice and mixed fruit juices the most likely to contain detectible levels. Although the exact reasons for the presence of these heavy metals is not yet known, contaminated soil, as well as manufacturing processes in a globalized food chain, are leading suspects.
Meanwhile, some manufacturers have taken issue with both the data and the conclusions of these reports. They point out that the amounts of lead found in the FDA data all fall within the agency's guidelines. The Consumer Reports data has been faulted for failing to specify the exact amounts of heavy metals that have been detected.
The good news is that these reports, which have put a spotlight on the issue, are helping to catalyze relevant policy changes at the FDA. We think this is important because the contaminants under discussion can result in serious harm to a child's health and development, particularly to the developing brain and nervous system.
Our advice, and this has as much to do with general health as it does with potential contaminants, is to minimize the use of processed and packaged baby and toddler foods as much as possible. Fruit juices and rice cereals, which are highlighted in the reports, really aren't ideal foods for young children. Instead, try to focus on a diverse diet of whole, unprocessed foods. With time and planning (and a good food processor), you'll give your child a solid nutritional foundation and earn yourself some peace of mind.
Eve Glazier, M.D., MBA, is an internist and associate professor of medicine at UCLA Health. Elizabeth Ko, M.D., is an internist and assistant professor of medicine at UCLA Health.