Heavy Metals in Baby Food

What should parents do? Plus: M&M Mars shows its true colors.

As I’m sure you’ve read by now, a new Congressional report has found that some baby and toddler foods, including organic brands, contain excessively high levels of heavy metals such as arsenic, cadmium, and lead.

The report focuses on four companies—Beech-Nut, Gerber, HappyBABY, and Earth’s Best—while stating that three other companies—Campbell (which makes Plum Organics), Walmart, and Sprout Foods—declined to cooperate with the Congressional committee. (Two of those companies, Campbell and Walmart, pushed back on this accusation in the Washington Post.)

The levels mentioned in the report are indeed alarming. Beech-Nut, for example, used ingredients containing as much as 886.9 parts per billion of lead, while leading experts have called for a lead limit of just 1 ppb in products consumed by babies and children. Similarly, while the Food and Drug Administration caps the amount of cadmium in drinking water at 5 ppb, some of the tested baby food had up to 69 times that level. All of this is cause for real concern, as excessive exposure to heavy metals can harm a child’s brain development and function.

Class action lawsuits have already been filed in the wake of the new report, and the New York state attorney general has urged the FDA to set uniform standards for toxic metals in all baby foods. (Right now, the agency only does so for rice cereal, long known to contain high levels of inorganic arsenic.) Meanwhile, some baby food brands are vigorously defending their testing protocols, while others are using the moment to tout their “clean” product formulas.

So what are worried parents to do? I thought it might be helpful to offer a round-up of expert opinions:

  • Consumer Reports, which has long investigated heavy metals in foods and beverages, recommends that parents: reduce the amount of fruit juice in their child’s diet; minimize the number of baby food snacks they offer their children; make their own baby food whenever feasible; and vary the types of foods offered to children, including rotating through a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.

  • Pediatrician Nimali Fernando of the Dr. Yum Project held a Facebook Live on the topic and similarly encouraged parents to think about “variety not volume” when introducing solids to infants, in part to avoid overexposing them to any particular contaminant.

  • Insider spoke to a number of experts and shares their advice in this article. Among their suggestions is making five particular food swaps: “choose rice-free snacks over rice-based ones, try a frozen banana or chilled cucumber instead of rice-based teething biscuits, opt for oatmeal over a rice cereal, give them tap water over fruit juice, and mix up their fruit- and vegetable-based foods rather than sticking strictly to those made with sweet potatoes and carrots.” According to the article, these five swaps alone can reduce toxic metal residue by 80 percent.

  • But Emily Oster, the economist and data-driven parenting guru, is less concerned than these other experts. At most, she says, parents should limit their children’s intake of rice products—but that’s it. You can read her more sanguine analysis of the Congressional report here.

Ultimately, though, this burden shouldn’t fall on parents’ shoulders. While exposure to heavy metals is inevitable due to their presence in our water, air, and soil, Consumer Reports stresses that baby food manufacturers could be doing a better job of minimizing risk. Referring to its own 2018 survey of baby foods, CR found that “[a]bout a third of the products we tested contained heavy metals below our level of concern, and in some products, there were no detectable levels of one or more heavy metals.”

But despite the current outcry, we can’t trust that baby and toddler food companies will get there on their own. Stronger FDA oversight is clearly needed.

The Clock Is Ticking! ⏰

Before I share the rest of this week’s kid/food news, just a quick reminder that after March 3, only my paid subscribers (and btw, a big 😘 to all you lovely people!!!) will continue to receive these weekly dispatches, while nonpaying subscribers will start receiving a once-a-month, *significantly condensed* digest of the prior month’s news items. So if you think four issues of this timely and content-rich newsletter are worth the price of just one $4 latte (and of course you do!), it’s time to sign up. As a further incentive, you’ll be locking in a permanent 20 percent discount.

Now let’s get to it!

Top Kid/Food News 🧒🏽 📰

  • M&M Mars has reneged on its 2016 promise to eliminate within 5 years all synthetic food dyes from its candies sold in the United States, including M&Ms and Skittles. As the Center for Science in the Public Interest reported last week in a sharply critical statement, just as the five-year mark approached, Mars quietly announced that the company will “continue to prioritize our efforts to remove artificial colors in Europe—where consumers have expressed this preference—but will not be removing all artificial colors from our Mars Wrigley portfolio in other markets.” CSPI Senior Scientist Lisa Lefferts tells parents: “[S]kip the Skittles and M&Ms. Mars does not deserve the public’s trust.”

  • Former First Lady Michelle Obama has announced that her new children’s food show, Waffles + Mochi, will premiere on Netflix on March 16. According to CBS News, the 10-episode show will feature two puppets who “come from the land of frozen foods and with the help of friendly new faces like the supermarket owner, Mrs. Obama, . . . blast off on global ingredient missions, traveling to kitchens, restaurants, farms and homes all over the world.” More here from Eater.

  • For the first time, the National WIC Association has released a State of WIC report to showcase the accomplishments of this critically important federal nutrition program, and to highlight how WIC could be further strengthened. One compelling fact from the report: “[E]very dollar spent on WIC services returns at least $2.48 in medical, education, and productivity costs.”

  • A new study confirms a problem I explore in Kid Food: when assessing the nutritional value of baby and toddler food products, parents often rely on—and are greatly misled by—pictures of fruits and vegetables on the front label.

  • Last week, this newsletter’s lead story focused on a new study that quantified the excessive added sugar content in school meals. But as several of my readers pointed out, I failed to include the actual study link! So sorry about that—it’s here.

Cafeteria Corner: School Food News 🍎 🏫

  • Three school districts—Portland Public Schools, Seattle Public Schools, and Austin Independent School Districthave joined the now-15-member Urban School Food Alliance, which leverages districts’ collective purchasing power to improve the quality of foods sold to K-12 meal programs.

  • New Mexico is expanding and diversifying its farm-to-school network.

  • And here’s another farm-to-school success story from Michigan.

  • The Food Research and Action Center has issued its annual School Breakfast Scorecard. It found a 1.5 percent increase in breakfast participation among low-income children as compared to last year, though only two states are taking full advantage of the school breakfast program, according to FRAC’s breakfast benchmark.

  • Maryland’s SNAP-ED program has created useful handouts to help families store and prepare any extra food they receive from free school meals during the pandemic.

  • Chili with cinnamon rolls? Apparently in some Midwestern school cafeterias, it used to be a thing.

For Little Eaters—and Those Who Feed Them 👶 🥣

  • Researchers at the University of Texas at Austin confirm what many educators and parents have seen firsthand: school gardens, cooking classes, and nutrition education really do boost kids’ intake of vegetables.

  • Should kids have to take a “No Thank You” bite? Dietitian and child feeding expert Jennifer Anderson (Kids Eat in Color) weighs in.

  • Is your child a “supertaster”? She may need extra help accepting vegetables, says childhood nutrition expert Jill Castle in her latest episode of The Nourished Child podcast.

  • I usually roll my eyes when corporations engage in “cause-washing” and I’m not a big fan of sugary kids’ cereals. But even I smiled at this limited edition “All Together” cereal from Kellogg’s, which uses all of its cereal mascots on one box to support LGBTQ youth.

  • I recently had a great conversation about all things “kid food” with Katie Kimball of Kids Cook Real Food. I hope you’ll take some time to watch our video interview here.

The Grown-Ups’ Table 🍸🍴

Some interesting food links that caught my eye:

  • Food writer Mark Bittman launches a new Substack newsletter, The Bittman Project.

  • Great British Baking Show alum Nadiya Hussain returns to her baking roots on Nadiya Bakes, debuting tomorrow on Netflix.

  • A Piece of Cake untangles the twisty history of Red Velvet cake.

  • First Lady Jill Biden gifts Michelle Obama with produce from the White House garden.

    A post shared by Michelle Obama (@michelleobama)

Until Next Time . . .

OK, that’s it for this week! If you enjoyed this newsletter, please share it!


And don’t forget: If you work in the kid/food world and have something big going on—an article or op-ed you've just written, an innovation in your school food program, a new advocacy campaign or policy initiative, recently published research, or any other news or tidbits—shoot me an email! I can’t promise that every item will make it into the newsletter, but I’d love to know about it.

Readers can always connect with me via e-mailTwitterFacebook, and Insta, and you can learn more about my book at my author website, bettinasiegel.com.