There’s been no shortage of “eat this/don’t eat that” headlines peppering the Internet in recent years. It’s tough to sort out what’s true or concerning among these stories. Every now and then, however, there’s a headline that really does come about as a result of scientific study, expert consensus, or both. And when an (in)edible becomes the subject of discussion in congress, it’s definitely worth sitting up and taking notice.
Such has been the case with lead; we’ve known for decades about the damage caused by human ingestion of this metal. Recently, however, concerns have been raised about other chemical elements, with the focus being on how much of them infants might be eating. A few years ago, for example, the first reports on arsenic in rice came out, and with them came recommendations for minimizing exposure through that food. More recently the presence of metals such as mercury and cadmium in baby food have undergone close scrutiny—so much so that a bipartisan group of U.S. representatives have taken on the tough task of developing standards for metals in foods. Their efforts appear to have paid off: earlier this month, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced an action plan to limit exposure to the concerning metals through foods.
While it’s a good thing that our government and federal agencies have begun to examine this, you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. After all, baby foods have been on the market for years, and still, we’ve managed to make it to adulthood. What’s the risk? And given that any new federal standards take some time to implement, are there things we can do now to protect babies from any bad effects of toxic metals?
What We Know About Risk
In pediatrics, a lot of our experience in dealing with heavy metal exposure comes from following kids with toxic levels of lead. Until 1978, there was quite a lot of exposure in the environment. Houses were often painted with lead paint up until that time, and there was lead in gasoline until the early 70s. With the Flint, Michigan lead exposure in the news in recent years, however, we know that lead exposure is still a possibility—so much so that state governments generally recommend (and some require) that young children be screened for lead exposure.
We know that markedly elevated lead levels can lead to irreversible, significant brain damage. They also cause anemia (low iron in the blood), and the lead settles in the bones. Fortunately, we don’t see those high levels much anymore. However, in following children with mildly elevated lead levels, we’ve seen subtle but real declines in learning and overall development. Although there isn’t as much research on the effects of cadmium, mercury and arsenic, a major concern is that these metals have similar effects on developing children.
How Do the Metals Get Into Food?
Although we’ve made strides in reducing environmental lead, we’re never going to be rid of exposure to heavy metals altogether. Fact is, they occur naturally to a degree, and they can get into foods through soil and groundwater. They can also be introduced during the processing and storage of foods. One of the problems is that we don’t yet know how much gets in that way. It seems that organic food would provide the ideal protection against metal exposure. Sadly, though, organically grown produce is subject to many of the same environmental forces that introduce heavy metals into foods.
In any case, certain foods seem to “attract” certain metals. We’ve known about the presence of mercury in certain fish for a while. The link of arsenic to rice, particularly brown rice, was a more recent development. And fruit juice—not a highly recommended food for infants and young children as it is—is being examined closely for the presence of metals.
What to Do Now
The FDA’s plan, known as “Closer to Zero,” calls for the agency to examine the science and come up with recommendations for safe levels of the metals as well as providing input on ways to achieve these levels. This is expected to take a number of years. In the meantime, here are some steps you can take:
- Talk with your pediatrician about foods to avoid. Many would advise parents to examine their baby’s rice intake (including cereals and rice syrup, which is sometimes used as a sweetener), long considered a “first food” in babies. Let your baby enjoy the great variety of grains available.
- Speaking of variety, it appears that you can help minimize exposure to metals if you feed a variety of baby foods. When your pediatric provider OK’s it, think about using combination foods—and read the label so you know what you’re giving!
- You have one more reason to avoid juice in babies and young children, as metals seem to get into juices. In addition, even natural juices without additives contain excessive sugar in relation to the nutrients they provide.
- When the time comes, follow current recommendations on fish consumption for your child. Fish is a great food; however, large predator fish such as swordfish tend to carry mercury.
- You can further limit exposure by breastfeeding, by testing your home water for lead, and by not smoking or vaping near your child. (Yes, you got it: that smoke also contains heavy metals.)
Most of these recommendations make good nutritional sense, in addition to potentially minimizing heavy metal intake. Aiming for variety in the diet will give your little one the best shot at getting in the recommended intake of all the nutrients she needs. And it’s well established that breastfeeding and avoidance of smoke are good for babies. Meanwhile, know that any risks to your baby that come from heavy metal intake are being addressed at the federal level, which is good news to digest!