Lowering the Levels: A Healthy Baby Food Initiative

A new study finds 95 percent of tested baby foods contain toxic chemicals that lower babies’ IQ, including arsenic and lead.

What it means for babies’ health: The chemicals found in baby food – arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury – are neurotoxins that can permanently alter the developing brain, erode IQ, and affect behavior.   

Why baby foods contain these toxic heavy metals: These four harmful metals are found in all food – not just baby food. They occur naturally or from pollution in the environment. Crops absorb them from soil and water, and they are even found in organic food. Their presence in baby food raises unique concern, because babies are more sensitive to the toxic impacts.

What parents can do:  Some popular baby foods have higher levels, like rice-based snacks, juice, and sweet potatoes. Parents can make five safer baby food choices for 80 percent less toxic metal residue.

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What You Can Do

5 safer baby foods

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Findings & Resources

Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF) found toxic heavy metals in 95 percent of containers tested. One in four baby foods contained all four metals assessed by our testing lab—arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. 

Even in the trace amounts found in food, these contaminants can alter the developing brain and erodes a child’s IQ. The impacts add up with each meal or snack a baby eats. Fresh research continues to confirm widespread exposures and troubling risks for babies, including cancer and lifelong deficits in intelligence from exposures to these common food contaminants. Despite the risks, with few exceptions there are no enforceable limits for toxic heavy metals in baby food.

  • We tested 168 foods consumed by babies and toddlers from a wide range of brands, including Gerber, Earth's Best, Beech-Nut, and popular store brands. One in four contained all four toxic chemicals included in our study.
  • We found notably high levels of heavy metals in some containers. Four of seven infant rice cereals tested contained inorganic arsenic (the toxic form of arsenic) in excess of FDA’s proposed action level of 100 parts per billion (ppb). Eighty-three percent of baby foods tested had more lead than the 1-ppb limit endorsed by public health advocates, and one of every five foods tested had over 10 times that amount.
  • 88 percent of foods tested lack any federal standards or guidance on maximum safe levels of toxic heavy metals like arsenic and lead.
  • Our tests are from a nationally accredited laboratory and have been released with the support of doctors, experts, and other organizations.

Our study also uncovered some good news and actionable items for cereal companies, the FDA and parents.

  • Baby food companies are paying attention. Current arsenic contamination levels in rice cereal and juice are 37 and 63 percent lower, respectively, than amounts measured a decade ago because of companies’ success in reducing metals levels in their food ingredients to comply with draft FDA guidance. They have shifted growing and processing methods, switched plant varieties, changed irrigation practices, and sourced from cleaner fields.
  • But because levels are still too high, more action is needed. Children under 2 years of age lose over 11 million IQ points from exposures to heavy metals in food, according to an analysis commissioned by HBBF and conducted by Abt Associates. And just 15 higher risk foods account for over half of that risk, including rice-based foods, juice, and sweet potatoes.
Bar chart comparing rice and rice-free snacks
Snacks – particularly rice-based snacks like puffs – are one of five baby food categories that contain higher levels of toxic chemicals. Learn more about all five categories and safer choices in the Tip Sheet for Parents.
  • Parents can take simple actions that make a difference: 5 safer alternatives to higher-risk baby foods have 80 percent less toxic metal residue, on average.
  • A newly announced Baby Food Council comprised of leading baby food companies and supported by non-profit organizations including the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) and HBBF seeks to “reduce heavy metals in the companies’ products to as low as reasonably achievable using best-in-class management practices.” 

The government, companies and parents can all act — and are, in many cases, already acting — to measurably lower levels in food and to lessen exposures for babies.

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