Readers of Real Answers may recall that there have been profound concerns about the presence of poisonous metals in products sold in the US under the category of “baby” food.
Some years ago, the arsenic and rice story was revealed and we urged all families to stop giving their infants rice cereal. The story tells us that the rice plant likes arsenic. If there is arsenic in the soil, the rice plant will seek it out and take it in, concentrating it in the hull of its rice grains. In response to this finding, the Attorney General of the state of New York sampled all brands of those charming boxes of baby rice cereal, and found 44% of the boxes had toxic levels of arsenic in them!
It was this finding that moved us to urge all of us to stop using “baby” rice cereal.
Then in October 2019, the group Health Babies Bright Futures, which monitors how safe “baby” foods are, published a landmark study in which they measured not just arsenic, but lead, mercury, and cadmium levels in “baby” foods. Their findings confirmed the findings of NY’s AG, but found these toxic metals in all processed rice products studied as well as “baby” juices, and even in some vegetables. The levels in vegetables were the orange ones, carrots and sweet potatoes, not high enough to never eat, but high enough to not only eat. But for all rice products for kids and all “baby” juices, the levels were high enough to never eat. This was the basis of our Real Answers on all rice products, and juices, and a warning to not lean to heavily on carrots and sweet potatoes.
Now comes our United States Congress. Our government represents our collective will, when gathered it is a powerful will, and this will was expressed in the interest of our babies this week. Our Congress conducted an in-depth study of the safety of our nation’s “baby” foods, inspired by the Health Babies Bright Futures work, and what they found was in a word, shocking. https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/04/health/baby-food-metals-arsenic.html
The investigation revealed that many companies who create foods they market as “baby” foods, knowingly add ingredients that all would agree are toxic, or more plainly put, poisonous. I was professionally shocked and personally dismayed to also learn that many of the companies publicly identified as doing this are branded as organic food producers, and label their products as organic.
What is the Problem with Metals?
Most elements in the universe are metals, defined as an element that conducts electricity when super-chilled down to a level of having no heat at all, or absolute zero. Most of us think of metals as hard shiny substances, and that is a fair physical definition. Not all metals are toxic, some are essential, some are both.
Gold is a metal that in its elemental form is non-toxic, which is why it really is safe to eat gold flakes on cakes, and drink it when sprinkled in drinks.
And then some metals are essential at some levels, but poisonous at higher levels. Perhaps the most interesting such metal is one that is essential to life, but is also highly poisonous. That would be iron. Iron is the 26th element in the periodic table, right in the middle of the first full row for all the chemistry fans out there. Iron has the ability to reversibly stick to oxygen molecules. Life has found a way to use that property to capture iron ions and place them strategically in the middle of well-constructed proteins, to deliver oxygen and release it, just right. The protein chlorophyll does this in plants, and for all animal life, hemoglobin does this in our blood. No iron, no animals, no plants. But if too many iron atoms get into a person, grave harm is done to our organs. At the right level, iron is essential to life, at higher levels, powerfully poisonous.
Most metals really are generally poisonous. Lead is a great example of an element (#82) that is poisonous, at any level. It serves no good, and any amount can cause serious damage.
For a group of metals like lead, the harm they cause is at the level of organ function. Hurting organs to the point they don’t work well anymore is a very, very serious level of damage. Just consider one of our organs, the brain. The human brain is one of the most extraordinary thing in the universe, delivering function by some of the most complex processes we know of. As such, much of what we think and feel is dependent on an organ that requires so many functions to work correctly, that it is tragically simple to interfere, damage, and limit the function of the brain.
Most toxic or poisonous metals hurt the brain. Others damage the heart, the kidneys, the reproductive organs, but almost all hurt the brain. And what does that brain damage look like if your brain is damaged? It means loss of intelligence. It means perhaps having any number of complex conditions that can follow such damage, including, but not limited to autism spectrum disorder, ADHD, behavior disorders, and learning disorders. Now to be clear, many, many paths can lead to these problems, the brain is indeed a most complex, and therefore, delicate organ, so many genetic damages, many infectious disease damages, even many plain old physical injuries can lead to these conditions, but poisoning by toxic metals can, and do, all the time.
Lead is the most famous and most deeply studied of the poisonous metals. We know from the extraordinary work of Dr. Herbert Needleman of Pittsburgh that even a little lead causes observable problems with using our brains. He got donations of baby teeth from many families, and measured their lead level, which reflected really how much their bodies were loaded with lead over the first 5-7 years of life. Then he looked at the lead level and tracked items like school success, social success, career success. He found a very, very strong pattern. As lead levels rose, students failed school, had various conditions like ADHD, ended up living criminal lives, failed to launch careers, more and more.
Although not as intensely studied, we know that other metals cause similar damage to the brain, including mercury and cadmium.
Arsenic is a metal that poisons all organs, because it denies all cells the oxygen they need to function, but that also includes the brain.
What did our Congress find when they looked at “baby” foods?
Again, Congress has resources to launch in-depth investigations, and lucky for us, they have used this power that we invest Congress with, to look at a wide number and variety of products sold to us as “baby” foods.
Here is what they found:
- Many products called “baby” foods, contain many times the acceptable levels set for bottle water for metals such as lead, arsenic, and cadmium.
- These poisons are not accidentally found in the “baby” foods, in many instances these toxic metals were added to these products by those who manufacture them. In one instance it was found that one company added arsenic to adjust the food’s crumbliness to a more favored state.
- Many of the companies whose “baby” food products were found to contain toxic levels of these poisonous metals were branded as “organic” and they sell their products strongly promoting the brand’s “organic” quality. Some cited companies included Sprout Organics, Plum Organics, Parent’s Choice Organic, Happy Family Organic, Earth’s Best Organic.
- Beech-Nut was mentioned as a company whose “baby” food products contained very high levels of these toxic metals. Examples cited include lead which in bottle water cannot exceed 5 parts per billion (ppb). Their enzyme additive called BAN 800 has a lead level of 5,000 ppb and the cinnamon they use has a lead level measured at 886.9 ppb
- Gerber was mentioned whose company uses ingredients that contain high levels of lead and whose carrots have high levels of cadmium.
- Nurture Happy Baby’s fruit and vegetable puffs (specifically, broccoli, strawberry, apple, and beet) contain high levels of arsenic.
A Word On “Organic”
The report highlights the fact that some food products, “baby” food products, presented to all of us as “organic” contained high levels of toxic metals. How could this be? Doesn’t organic mean safe?
Organic, it turns out, is a measure, not a standard. To be certified as organic, the food must pass a number of measures of various items. Most refer to the use of added agricultural products, such as antibiotics and insecticides. But the problem is that not all toxic items are measured, as clearly showcased by these findings.
This really raises the overall issue of the safety of our entire food supply. After all, rice is now known to concentrate arsenic, all on its own, with no agricultural processes adding arsenic to the crop.
As a result, it becomes increasingly clear that our goal needs to move beyond feeling we are safe if we choose to define safety be the concept of measures, and not the concept of safety.
I favor the approach we take with drug companies. We ask them to take on the responsibility of proving their product is safe before they can sell it to anyone. This is called the precautionary principle and it is the rule in Europe for not just drugs but every chemical.
- The more we look, the more we find poisonous metals in our “baby” foods.
- These metals include lead, and mercury, and arsenic, and cadmium.
- Toxic levels of these metals were found in quite a wide variety of “baby” foods. The problem now clearly extends beyond rice cereal, rice products, and “baby” fruit juices.
- Poisonous metals were found in “baby” foods clearly designated as “organic.”
- You may have notice heavy use of “quote marks.” These findings need to move us all to reject the notion that there really such a thing as a manufactured baby food. Yes, many companies make products that are pureed, that have cute babies on the label, that even are labelled as baby foods. But now that we know that lead, cadmium, and arsenic are found across a rather bewildering array of these items, maybe it’s time to think about making food for our babies like we make food for each other, get the ingredients, make the food.
- One last challenge to consider-
The fact that so many foods manufactured and promoted for sale for use by babies have poisonous metals at high levels in them leads us to now recommend that we no longer purchase manufactured “baby” foods. That we recognized them for what they are- processed foods that have nothing to do with infancy.
At this time, it is now preferable to buy your own safe fruits and vegetables and mash them up yourself, to buy non-rice cereal flakes, and mix them up yourself. We do that to make food for our older children and each other, time we did so for our babies.
For families that favor purees, time to mash up your own. For families that favor baby-led weaning, you have not used “baby” foods for a while and are all set.