Study finds lead in 20 percent of baby foods

baby food
CC BY 2.0 Lars Plougmann

Somewhat baffling to researchers is the fact that baby foods rank worse than regular foods. Perhaps processing is to blame?

Think about sources for lead exposure, and it’s usually water pipes and old paint peelings that come to mind. An alarming new study from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), however, has found that food is a surprising source of lead contamination – in particular, baby food, which showed higher levels of lead than regular food.

EDF examined 11 years’ worth of data (2003-2013) collected by the Food & Drug Administration’s Total Diet Study, which was started in the 1970s to track metals, pesticides, and nutrients in food. It found that 20 percent of 2,164 baby food samples and 14 percent of 10,064 regular food samples had detectable lead levels.

The worst baby food culprits were grape juice (89 percent of samples contained lead), sweet potatoes (86 percent), and arrowroot cookies (64 percent). Researchers were able to determine how frequently contamination occurs, but not at what levels.

detectable lead (EDF study)© EDF

“EDF also found that more than 1 million children consume more lead than FDA’s limit. Eliminating lead in food would save society more than $27 billion annually in total lifetime earnings from saved IQ points.”

Why baby food is more contaminated than regular food is unclear to researchers, but Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director for EDF, has his suspicions: “I can’t explain it other than I assume baby food is processed more.”

This is a serious concern because babies and children are more susceptible to the effects of lead than adults. Lead is considered unsafe at any level, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, because it hurts neurological development and can cause behavioral problems, ability to focus, and lower IQ.

Currently the FDA does allow lead at specific amounts in baby foods – 100 parts per billion for dried fruit and candy, 50 ppb for fruit juices, and 5 ppb for water. EDF questions these guidelines and hopes its study will spur the FDA to tighten its regulations, such as setting a goal of less than 1 ppb of lead in baby food.

Oddly enough, EDF chose not to release the names of baby food companies included in the study, instead urging parents to “check with their favorite brands to ask whether the company regularly tests its products for lead and ensures that there is less than 1 ppb of lead in the food and juices they sell.” If the goal is to protect children by pressuring the industry to clean up its act, this concern for privacy seems out of place.

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