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What Parents Need to Know about Heavy Metals in Baby Food

Author: Jackie Bowen, MPH, MS, Clean Label Project Founder and Executive Director 

The topic of heavy metals in food, especially baby food, can be scary for many parents and caregivers because of the uncertainty and the complex nature of the issue. “What are heavy metals?” “Why are they bad?” 

What Are Heavy Metals?

Heavy metals are elements and elements are the building blocks of chemistry. Think back to that periodic table of elements in grade school with boxes like Nitrogen, Iron, and even Oxygen and Hydrogen, which are the components of drinking water. Some elements like Oxygen, are essential for life. However, other elements can have negative health impacts, especially if we are exposed to them in high quantities. Some of those elements with negative health impacts are naturally occurring in the earth’s crust and can be absorbed into our food supply. Those elements, specifically Lead, Arsenic, Cadmium, and Mercury are referred to as “Heavy Metals” and are the elements that we focus on for food safety. 

How Can I Avoid Heavy Metal Exposure?

It’s important to remember that these elements are naturally occurring in the earth’s crust, so there is no way to completely avoid them. However, some industrial agricultural techniques and air pollution have caused certain soils and water sources to become increasingly concentrated with heavy metals, so where ingredients come from really matters to minimize exposure.

The best way to know what levels of heavy metals are present in ingredients and finished products is to test them. But there currently are no federal regulations requiring food brands to test and evaluate incoming ingredients for heavy metals. That’s why it’s so wonderful to have brands like Mission MightyMe, who voluntarily and proactively think about food safety differently by searching for suppliers who consistently deliver ingredients that minimize exposure and by testing their finished products for heavy metals. 

Testing for heavy metals, in addition to pesticides and plasticizers is so important. In fact, that’s why the Clean Label Project was created, to independently evaluate brands and their finished products and highlight brands that exceed current minimum food safety regulations. When you see one of our seals of approval, you know it has been independently tested and evaluated. This is important for the health and safety of my family and yours. 

Here are a few things you can do to minimize your family’s exposure to heavy metals. 

  1. Diversify! Remember, the goal is to make sure your child is getting all the good nutrients they need to grow and thrive, so mixing it up is a great way to cover all your nutritional bases. 

  2. Make healthy fish choices. Some types of fish can be high in a form of mercury called methylmercury, and other metals. Of most concern are large, predatory fish that eat other fish and live longer, such as albacore/white tuna, orange roughy, shark, and swordfish. Fish can be an excellent source of protein and other nutrients children need, so look for better options like light tuna (solid or chunk), salmon, cod, whitefish, and pollock.

  3. Don't smoke or vape. Secondhand smoke from both regular and e-cigarettes can expose children to metals such as cadmium and lead. Vaping allows toxic metals from the vape coils to get into the air and be inhaled.

  4. Check your water. Heavy metals can get into tap water: for example, arsenic can contaminate well water, and older pipes may contain lead. You can contact your local health department to have your water tested.

  5. Ask questions and demand answers. Clean Label Project has a growing list of certified brands and the website provides you with quick and easy solutions for your family. Have a favorite product or brand that isn’t certified? Use social media to ask questions and demand answers. Tell these brands that minimizing exposure to heavy metals is important to you and your family. 

If you have concerns, of course work with your pediatrician or family medicine doctor for more information. 

Jackie Bowen, MPH, MS, Clean Label Project Founder and Executive Director 

Jackie Bowen is a food safety and quality systems engineer and executive director of Clean Label Project, a national non-profit and consumer advocacy organization with the mission to bring truth and transparency to food and consumer product labeling. Through data, science, and benchmarking, Clean Label Project uses retail sampling and testing to benchmark product quality and purity of North America's best selling food and consumer products and award Clean Label Project's coveted evidence-based Purity Award. Bowen was the researcher and co-author behind the largest academic peer-reviewed study ever conducted on lead and cadmium in baby food which was published in the international multidisciplinary journal, Science of the Total Environment. 

Before coming to Clean Label Project, Jaclyn held numerous technical, standards development, food safety, quality, and executive roles within the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre, NSF International. Her expertise is in organic, gluten-free, non-gmo labeling, food safety, and label claim substantiation and compliance. Bowen and Clean Label Project have appeared on NBC, ABC, CNN, ‘The Doctors’,  'Dr. Drew' and 450+ print and online media outlets including USA Today and Huff Post. Bowen holds a Bachelors of Science in environmental biology, a Master of Science in quality engineering and a Master of Public Health in management and policy. 

Her most important role to date is that of a mother to her 2 year old son.