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The Truth About Baby Food

what's actually in your baby's food?

Did you hear? A terrifying new report recently showed that several leading brands of baby foods contain toxic chemicals (including arsenic and lead). There’s no safe level at which these chemicals can be part of your baby’s diet—that comes straight from the EPA, CDC, WHO and the American Academy of Pediatrics.

So if the brands you trust are having this problem, how are you supposed to know if what you’re giving baby is truly safe? We spoke with Jackie Bowen, executive director of Clean Label Project, about what these chemicals can do to your baby’s health as well as what you can do as a parent to keep your little ones safe.

Can you speak to the report a bit? What happens if babies ingest these chemicals? The food safety regulatory fabric in America is largely focused on pathogen and microbiological contaminants—E. coli, salmonella, listeria, etc.. These can cause vomiting, diarrhea or worse within 24–72 hours. Exposure to low levels of heavy metals can take years, sometimes decades, to manifest into chronic disease in the form of cancer or reproductive harm.

In the absence of current federal regulation setting maximum tolerances for heavy metals, it can be difficult for parents to make the best choice for their baby.

[We’ve] been testing for heavy metals, pesticide residues, and plasticizers and certifying products for five years. In the baby food space, only a dozen brands so far have passed our rigorous testing of over 400 industrial and environmental contaminants.

What can parents do? Is there anything they should look for on the labels? Ask [the brands] if they have had their products evaluated against California Proposition 65.  California Proposition 65 has established limits for arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury and is arguably the most consumer protective regulation in the US when it comes to heavy metals.

The proposition protects the state’s drinking water sources from being contaminated with chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm, and requires businesses to inform Californians about exposures to such chemicals. I see a fair amount of brands proactively screening their products for Prop 65 compliance.

Do some food brands have any red flags in particular to watch for? The brands recognized in the report—Gerber, HappyBABY, Hain Celestial, Walmart’s [Parent Choice brand], and Sprout—are a good place to start. However, it’s also important to recognize that certain ingredients are higher risk than others. For example, rice-based ingredients, on average, have higher amounts of arsenic. Chocolate ingredients, on average, have higher amounts of cadmium.

And what about organic options? Are those necessarily safer, as parents probably tend to believe? Parents are sometimes inclined to reach for organic options. After testing tens of thousands of food and consumer products, the organic promise of reduced exposure to pesticides is definitely true.

However, screening for heavy metals is not part of the USDA National Organic Program. In fact, a report published by ATTRA of the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service highlights that the use of conventional chicken litter in organic production could contribute to arsenic contamination in soils—highlighting antibiotic use in commercial broiler production as the source.

So is anything safe? Are there any baby food brands that you tend to recommend? While the investigation highlights a handful of large commercial baby food brands that are falling short of meeting safety expectations, a lot of progressive baby food brands have answered the call of parents and advocacy organizations and have proactively and voluntarily decided to think of food safety differently.

We at Clean Label Project purchase and test baby foods for over 400 industrial and environmental contaminants and toxins including heavy metals, pesticide residues, plasticizers and more. Cerebelly, Serenity Kids, Yummy Spoonfuls, Once Upon a Farm, Tiny Human Food, Freshbellies, Nature’s One and Else Nutrition have shifted their supplier assurance and product specifications procedures to monitor for heavy metal contamination. They’ve each received our Clean Label Project’s Purity Award.

So if one of the brands mentioned in the report is a brand parents trust or use regularly, what can they do about that, besides just not buying the food? Would you recommend they reach out to the company or maybe a local government agent of some kind? Absolutely! Reach out to brands and reach out to your favorite retailers. Social media is such a great forum to engage and hold brands accountable publicly.

This latest report from the House of Representatives will hopefully result in additional action and investigation. Call your local representative and tell them vulnerable populations need to be protected and that you support food safety reform for baby food.

Image courtesy of iStock.