A Parent’s Guide to Healthy Baby Food

Charlotte Brody, RN
October 16, 2019
Baby eating from a spoon

When I was a student nurse in the 1970s, I saw lead poisoning. A 5-year-old boy was rushed into the emergency room unconscious after what we discovered was a lead paint chip caused seizure. That’s how health care providers defined lead poisoning back then – seizures, unconsciousness, death.

Fifty years later, we understand that lead and many other toxic chemicals can hurt children at exposure levels much, much smaller than the doses that cause dramatic symptoms like seizures. And the damage is much harder to see, but just as permanent. Scientists have documented how low dose exposures can interfere with the healthy development of a baby’s brain and increase the odds of learning disabilities, lower IQ scores and behavior problems.

That’s why today’s report from Healthy Babies Bright Futures matters so much. Our new study finds that 95 percent of 168 tested baby foods contain arsenic, cadmium, lead or mercury. One in four baby foods contained all four metals. The mixture of just the arsenic and lead in the foods babies’ eat are costing American children under two years old 11 million IQ points, according to an original analysis by Abt Associates conducted for this report.

What do we do to fix this problem? There’s both a short-term, personal solution and a longer-term, political solution.

First, what can parents do today: Rice and rice-based snacks, juice and sweet potatoes have the highest levels of these chemicals. HBBF has figured out six safer baby food choices that have 80 percent less toxic metal residues for children. The details for how to swap out the more contaminated foods for safer alternatives can be found here.

Second, we need the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to remember that it is their job to “ensure the safety of the food supply.” There are no existing or proposed FDA limits for 88% of the foods that HBBF tested, and this is a problem.

These toxic metals are in baby food because they are in the soil that the food is grown in. Some baby food companies are taking steps to source their ingredients from the least contaminated fields and use different varieties and growing methods to decrease the toxic chemicals in their products. But we need the FDA to set strong limits on the levels of these toxic chemicals in baby foods to protect all babies, starting with arsenic and lead, where strong science and high exposures create irrefutable risks for children.

Healthy Babies Bright Futures has started a petition calling on the FDA to do their job --- starting with Puffs – the rice-based snack that one-fourth of babies ages 6 to 12 months eat every day. These snacks have more arsenic than any other type of baby food. Parents can switch to rice-free packaged snacks or choose apples, bananas, peaches, cheese, grapes (cut lengthwise), or hard-boiled eggs instead. But while you’re peeling the less-contaminated banana, sign the FDA petition and send it to your friends, so the babies of tomorrow have safer food to eat and the parents of tomorrow have one less thing to worry about.