We’ve heard from a number of our patients at White Mountain Community Health Center who are concerned about the headlines that baby food can contain high levels of heavy metals. These news articles are covering a new Congressional report calling for the FDA to regulate heavy metals in baby food in the same way it regulates them in bottled water and other products. Many currently contain high levels of lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium.
The report is worrisome, but parents shouldn’t panic. The concern is about population-level health effects, and it’s unlikely that any individual child has consumed enough of any of these products to have an acute effect.
“Parents should be feeding their kids a varied diet,” said Physician Assistant Lisa Cushing, the provider for our pediatric program. “Unless your baby is eating one of these products multiple times a day every single day, they’re just fine.” The health center regularly screens babies and toddlers for lead, and can test children for other heavy metals if parents want peace of mind but it’s unlikely that contamination from baby food would show up this way.
Parents have asked if they should avoid prepared baby foods to avoid these heavy metals. This can be a healthier way to feed your children, but it’s not a surefire way to avoid heavy metals. A lot of the heavy metals found in baby food would also be in home cooking. Plants naturally take in heavy metals in the soil. Some of these are found in the soil naturally, and a lot of agricultural soil is contaminated with heavy metals from years of pesticide use, such as lead arsenate, even if the current crops are grown organically.
All parents should be aware that rice in particular often contains very high arsenic levels. Many of the problematic products studied were rice-based, such as puffs and cereals. Parents should limit the amount of rice they feed their children in any form to a few servings a week at most. This includes rice cereal, pasta, crackers, cakes and cooked rice. Rice milk should be avoided entirely for young children.
Consumer Reports, the organization whose studies prompted the congressional report, recommends minimizing heavy metal exposure from food by rinsing raw rice before cooking with a ratio of six cups of water to one cup of rice, cleaning root vegetables thoroughly, and limiting juice consumption. If you have well water and have young children, you should have your water tested for arsenic and lead.
Making your own baby food isn’t a bad idea, however. Our dietician, Donna Dodge, says that making your own baby food has many health benefits and isn’t as daunting as it sounds. “You can prepare homemade baby food quite easily. It doesn't have to be time intensive. Making your own food can help introduce your baby to more flavors, which may help him become a more adventurous eater. And by managing the added sugars, you're in greater control of your baby's nutrition.”
Here are a few tips from Donna on how to get started:
If you are interested in preparing your own baby food but find the idea daunting, start with just a few homemade items. Mashing a very ripe avocado or banana is a good place to begin. These can be mixed with cream or plain yogurt. After your baby responds well, you can try preparing nutrient-rich foods such as chicken, beef, liver or egg yolk. These foods contain fats and nutrients important for brain and immune system development.
If you have a food processor or blender, you can puree what the rest of the family is having. For example, if beef stew is planned for dinner, remove a scoop and puree for baby. It is recommended that you add any spicy seasonings after removing baby's portion. A baby's taste buds can be very sensitive. But don't be afraid to add a little salt. Your baby uses salt for metabolism, and it's critical for the proper development of the hormone, immune and nervous systems.
You can feed babies almost anything you’re eating, if you’re eating a healthy diet. When cooking food babies will eat, be vigilant about sanitation and choking risks. Use only well-scrubbed and washed produce, clean hands, utensils, cutting boards and countertops. Wash and peel produce and remove any seeds or pits.
Cook food until it's very tender. Steaming and microwaving in just a little water are good methods to retain vitamins and minerals in fruits and vegetables. When cooking meats and fish, remove all gristle, skin and bones before feeding them to a baby. Puree or mash fresh fruit or fruit canned in its own juice. Make sure the texture and temperature are appropriate. Some foods pose a choking risk and are not recommended for infants, such as whole grapes, raisins, and pieces of hot dog.
Makes 4-6 servings
2 cups vegetables such as zucchini, sweet potato, carrot, chopped into 1-inch pieces
Chicken stock, beef stock or water
1 tsp butter
1 egg yolk
Place the vegetables in a small saucepan and add enough stock or water to cover. Bring to a boil and simmer with the lid on until vegetables are soft. Remove from heat. Season with sea salt. Mash with a fork or puree in blender or food processer. Place individual servings in an ice cube tray or small ramekins, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate or freeze.
To serve, place cubed food in a small bowl and place in a small pot of hot water. Once defrosted, add egg yolk and butter. Mix well to make a smooth paste. The egg yolk will gently cook and the butter will melt. Serve immediately.
Siena Kaplan-Thompson is the director of communications and development at White Mountain Community Health Center in Conway. She can be reached at email@example.com. White Mountain Community Health Center is provides comprehensive primary care to men, women and children, including dental care, a prenatal program, and support services. The health center is a non-profit working to ensure that all can access high-quality health care, regardless of ability to pay. For more information about the health center, go to whitemountainhealth.org or call (603) 447-8900.