Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements in the environment. A few are required for proper development, such as zinc, iron, magnesium, and calcium. Unfortunately, other types of heavy metals are harmful to people due to their potential to cause neurotoxicity. This fact raises concerns over the source and contents of baby food, as developing children are more susceptible to the adverse effects of heavy metals in their nutrition.
These concerns were not unfounded, as a congressional report from February 2021 uncovered that alarming concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead were found in commercially available baby foods from several popular brands. These are heavy metals that have no safe level of exposure and have been linked with the development of neurological conditions, including learning disabilities, cognitive dysfunction, ADHD, and autism.
Do Heavy Metals in Baby Food Contribute to Autism?
Children under 36 months of age are still developing their immune system and neural pathways. Exposure to toxic heavy metals by ingesting tainted baby food is especially concerning because their digestive tract absorbs more nutrients. As they accumulate in the body, these heavy metals act as neurotoxins, reaching the brain (among other organs and tissues) and leading to neurodevelopmental issues.
It’s important to note that the mechanisms that cause autism are not yet completely understood. Researchers consider that both genetics and environmental factors play a role in its development. While determining the precise cause is difficult, a growing body of evidence shows that exposure to toxic heavy metals is highly associated with the increasing rates of autism spectrum disorders (ASD). A study conducted by the National Institute of Health set out to determine the relationship between heavy metals, nutrient intake, and the development of autism. They aimed to identify irregularities in metal levels linked to the condition by examining twins. Their results show that the teeth of children with ASD contain higher concentrations of toxic lead than children who aren’t affected.
Another relevant study notes that the severity of ASD cases is strongly correlated with the high levels of heavy metals in children between the ages of 3 and 8, and a recent meta-analysis of multiple studies found significant associations between heavy metals and autism. The available data confirms that exposure to heavy metals can contribute to the development of ASD, and the high levels of these elements in baby foods are an obvious risk. Even if they occur naturally, baby food manufacturers are responsible for the toxic contents in their products and should ensure higher standards.
The excessive amounts of dangerous metals in such products prompted strong reactions from the FDA, members of Congress, and a coalition of 24 attorneys general. Their demands include regular testing by manufacturers, higher reporting standards, more transparency, and the drastic reduction of neurotoxic metal contents in baby food products.
How Parents Can Reduce Their Child’s Exposure to Heavy Metals
The congressional report’s findings justify parents’ heightened concerns about the safety of infant nutrition products. With multiple studies showing that exposure to toxic metals can contribute to the onset of autism, parents are left wondering what alternatives are available. Even though these elements are naturally occurring, and a minute level of exposure is to be expected, several methods can limit an infant’s exposure to toxic metals like cadmium, mercury, arsenic, and lead.
An essential nutritional choice for infants in their first year of life is breastfeeding. Mother’s milk is a vital source of proteins, fats, and sugars. It is also full of antibodies that a growing baby needs to develop its immune system adequately. Breast milk also has probiotic properties that ensure a healthy gut microbiome and prevent infections.
Furthermore, breastfed babies are less likely to develop chronic conditions such as allergies, asthma, and obesity, or even more severe afflictions such as lymphoma and leukemia. The American Academy of Pediatrics highlights that a minimum of 6 months of breastfeeding is advisable before gradually introducing solid foods into a baby’s diet. This ensures that developing infants are minimally exposed to harmful heavy metals when they are most vulnerable.
Limit or Avoid Rice
While it’s considered a staple food in infant nutrition, rice, and rice-derived products can contain elevated levels of inorganic arsenic. Due to its structure and being cultivated in large bodies of water, rice absorbs 10 to 20 times more arsenic from the surrounding environment. Notably, brown rice is even more absorbent than strains of white rice.
Because of its inherent levels of harmful arsenic, rice should be used only sparingly as an option for children’s nutrition. Thoroughly rinsed sushi and basmati rice are safer options; however, experts recommend replacing rice with healthier cereals like oats, wheat, rye, barley, or quinoa.
Choose the Right Fish
Fish is an exceedingly great source of essential nutrients. It contains lean protein, vitamin D, omega fatty acids, and many minerals. Unfortunately, particular types of fish have higher levels of mercury and should preferably be avoided. Such options include predatory fish like shark, swordfish, marlin, king mackerel, ahi and bigeye tuna, tilefish, and orange roughy.
When transitioning to solid food options, better fish choices include pollock, sardines, anchovy, salmon, trout, herring, flounder, or canned light tuna. There are also multiple seafood options you can choose from, including shrimp, crawfish, scallops, oysters, and lobster.
Before including such options in their infant’s diet, parents should be wary of any sensitivity their child might display to avoid an allergic reaction.
Switch to Safer Alternatives
In 2019 the non-profit Healthy Babies Bright Futures released a study that brought the dangerous volume of heavy metals in baby food products. Consequently, they provide several healthier alternatives that parents should consider:
- Rice-free snacks are a safer alternative to rice-based snacks and can lower heavy metal levels by 93%.
- Chilled cucumbers or frozen bananas can replace teething biscuits, lowering heavy metals by 91%.
- Multi-grain cereals and oatmeal are adequate and healthier substitutes for rice-based infant cereals, mitigating heavy metals by 84%.
- Instead of carrots or sweet potatoes, opt for a wider variety of vegetables that provide multiple nutrients, reducing heavy metal intake by 73%.
- Fruit juices (apple, pear, grape) contain traces of lead and arsenic and should not be a part of a child’s diet in their first year. Water is the safest option next to breast milk, reducing exposure to heavy metals by 68%.
It should be noted that “organic” products aren’t necessarily heavy metal-free. The ingredients used to manufacture them can absorb these harmful elements from the soil and water during the growing process.
Parents that are at a loss regarding safe baby food products now can request healthier options from ethical manufacturers through the Toxic Baby Food Replacement Initiative. Filling out the form at the bottom of the page will put them in contact with a representative who can provide a range of safer options for infant nutrition, free from toxic heavy metals.