Homemade Baby Food Is as Likely to Contain Arsenic and Other … – Consumer Reports

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But there’s plenty that parents can do to keep their children’s food safe
Homemade baby foods are as likely as store-bought ones to contain detectable levels of lead, arsenic, cadmium, and mercury, according to a new report from Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), a national alliance of scientists and child health advocacy organizations. Over 90 percent of the foods analyzed had detectable levels of at least one heavy metal.
The report also identified the foods often fed to babies that contain the highest and lowest levels of heavy metals to help parents choose better ones for their children. Among the worst are rice cakes, rice puffs, and crisped-rice cereal. Those with lower levels include bananas, oranges, eggs, and meats.
Previous research—including testing by Consumer Reports—found alarmingly high levels of heavy metals in some store-bought baby foods and fruit juices. “For parents and researchers, that’s raised the question of whether homemade baby foods were a safer choice,” says Michael Hansen, PhD, senior scientist at CR. “These findings suggest that while homemade food can be equally risky, there are things parents can do to stay safe and minimize exposure to heavy metals.”
Jane Houlihan, research director at HBBF and a co-author of the report, agrees. “Even taking one simple step every day can reduce the harm,” she says. For example, parents can swap fresh or frozen fruit for canned, serve infant oatmeal instead of infant rice cereal, and peel sweet potatoes before cooking them.
Heavy metals exist naturally in the environment, but levels are higher in water and soil contaminated by manufacturing or farming practices, such as mining or pesticide application. Some foods are more likely to absorb certain metals. Rice, for example, is more likely to pick up inorganic arsenic, the most harmful form of that element, and spinach can absorb high levels of cadmium.
Heavy metals in food raise concerns particularly for young children because their bodies and brains are still developing. Exposure has been linked to behavioral issues, lowered IQs, and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
A pair of recent congressional reports called attention to these sometimes alarmingly high levels of metals, and the Food and Drug Administration has announced plans to set limits on metals in certain foods. CR, along with other food safety organizations and some state attorneys general, has called on the agency to speed up its plan.
“The new report shows that heavy metal contamination isn’t limited to specifically marketed baby foods, but instead affects certain crops as a whole,” Hansen says. And for some crops, such as carrots and sweet potatoes, heavy metal levels varied widely from sample to sample. That suggests that it’s possible for growers and food producers to provide products with lower levels. “This should add to the urgency for FDA to take action and get these metals out of food.”
For the new study, HBBF tested 14 types of baby foods, such as purées and teething biscuits, and compared them to 14 similar products eaten by people of all ages. For example, to compare infant squash purée, they tested fresh squash, and for rice-based teething biscuits, they tested rice cakes. 
In some cases, the prepared baby foods had lower levels of heavy metals. For other items, the homemade version had lower levels. But mostly, the differences were minor.
To supplement those tests, HBBF also analyzed heavy metal data from FDA tests of other foods to present information on a total of 190 foods.
To help guide parents, they divided the foods into four categories based on their heavy metal levels and how often babies (and pregnant people) should eat them:
Avoid. Crisped rice cereal, rice puffs, rice cakes, and brown rice. (For brown rice, you can serve it occasionally if you cook it in water and drain it, the way you would pasta.) 
Eat rarely. Arrowroot teething crackers, dried fruit, grape juice, infant rice cereal, oat-ring cereal (such as Cheerios and other brands), rice-based teething biscuits and rusks, full-sized spinach (as opposed to baby spinach), and sunflower seed butter.
Eat occasionally. These foods should be rotated with similar foods in a child’s diet rather than serving the same ones every day: baby spinach, cantaloupe, canned fruit, carrots, 100 percent fruit juice (other than grape), nonrice grains, nonrice teething biscuits and crackers, leafy greens, peanut butter, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and white rice (which should also be cooked in lots of water and drained). Washing and peeling carrots, potatoes, and sweet potatoes reduces their heavy metal content. 
Eat freely. Many other foods. Among those highlighted by HBBF were most fresh, frozen, and puréed fruit; peas, green beans, and butternut squash; meats like pork, lamb, or baby food meats; eggs; beans; applesauce; cheese; yogurt; and infant formula made with lead-free water.
“The most important piece of advice is to serve a variety of healthy foods,” Houlihan says. In addition, HBBF identifies several simple changes parents can make: 
• Replace teething biscuits and rice rusks with a frozen banana.
• Swap canned fruit for fresh fruit, frozen fruit, or baby food fruit purées.
• Give kids infant oatmeal cereal instead of infant rice cereal.
• Offer tap water instead of fruit juice like apple juice or grape juice.
• Vary protein sources, for example, including some puréed meats along with some nut butters.
• Peel sweet potatoes and carrots to lower heavy metal levels.
• Offer applesauce, beans, fruit, yogurt, or cheese as snacks instead of rice-based puffs.
Kevin Loria
I’m a science journalist who writes about health for Consumer Reports. I’m interested in finding the ways that people can transform their health for the better and in calling out the systems, companies, and policies that expose patients to unnecessary harm. As a dad, I spend most of my free time trying to keep up with a toddler, but I also enjoy exploring the outdoors whenever possible. Follow me on Twitter (@kevloria). 
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