If the news about baby food lately has made you nervous, you’re not alone. Maybe you’re wondering, “Is jarred baby food healthy?” If so, the next question is this: Is homemade baby food safer than store bought?
You want to do everything you can to keep your baby safe. And if that means buying, roasting or boiling, pureeing, and freezing your own fruits and vegetables for your baby, then so be it. But that’s a lot of work, so you want to be sure it’s worth it.
And unfortunately, there’s a lot of misinformation (on both sides) going around about the safety of baby food. And since this is where my PhD is (I literally tested baby foods for pesticides in grad school and then tested food, water, and soil for lead as a chemistry professor), I wanted to provide evidence-based information on the safety of store bought baby food vs. homemade. Plus, I’m telling 6 ways to avoid heavy metals in baby food.
Is jarred baby food healthy?
You may be wondering if it’s even safe to give your child jarred baby food (or baby food from a pouch). Here’s what you need to know:
Toxic heavy metals in store bought baby food
The 2021 Congressional report on toxic metals in baby food highlights lead, cadmium, arsenic, and mercury. Here’s an overview of what they found:
- Several major brands had greater than 100 parts per billion arsenic (the limit set by the FDA is 100 parts per billion in rice cereal, but they haven’t set limits for other baby food. The limit in the EU is also 100 parts per billion).
- Several major brands sold finished products with several hundred parts per billion lead (the EU sets a limit of 50 ppb lead in baby food).
- Multiple major brands used ingredients containing over 100 ppb cadmium in baby food. Many of Gerber’s carrots contained high levels of cadmium (The EU sets a limit of 40 parts per billion in baby food).
- Mercury is often not tested in baby food.
- Often, only baby food ingredients are tested for metals, not the final product (so for example, carrots may be tested before they are turned into baby food). Metals are not broken down by processing or cooking foods and may actually be concentrated into baby food. That means the concentration of heavy metals in baby food may be higher than in the original ingredients.
While these facts are rightly alarming, they’re not new. There was a major report from Healthy Babies, Bright Futures in 2019 showing similar findings. And the thing is, nothing has changed since then.
Health effects of toxic metals
There has been lots of worry about recent reports (like this article from the Wall Street Journal) about a congressional report of toxic heavy metals in baby foods.
And there are certainly valid concerns about these metals! Here is a brief list of the toxins of concern and their health effects.
Lead is one of the most toxic heavy metals. As the CDC says, there is no safe level of lead exposure. One of the biggest issues with lead is that it bioaccumulates. That means that once you’re exposed, it stays in your body (lead is stored in the bones) and can even be passed from a pregnant woman to her unborn child.
Lead exposure can have effects on almost every system in the body. It affects the cardiovascular system, kidney function, and the reproductive system. But the biggest concern is the neurological system. Lead from food, paint, or water can lead to lowered IQ, impaired memory, and potentially ADHD.
Cadmium is another extremely toxic heavy metal that was found in the recent report. Like lead, higher cadmium levels are linked to learning disabilities. But unlike lead, which is stored in the bones, cadmium is stored in soft tissues such as the liver and kidneys, where it can cause a lot of damage.
Arsenic isn’t just a poison mentioned in the Cell-Block Tango (“Some guys just can’t hold their arsenic”). It’s also a toxin found in food, particularly rice. Children’s exposure to arsenic can damage the brain and nervous system, causing decreased intelligence and memory.
The really scary part is that these effects are found from exposures lower than current safety guidelines from the FDA (which allows up to 100 parts par billion arsenic in baby rice cereal, but doesn’t regulate arsenic in other baby foods at all).
Arsenic is most commonly found in baby rice cereal, although it can be found in drinking water and other foods too.
RELATED: Should I skip rice cereal?
Mercury is associated with neurodevelopmental effects such as learning disabilities, tremor, attention deficit, and autism.
Why are there toxic metals in baby food?
It would be great if manufacturers could simply “not add” heavy metals to baby food, or just take them out. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.
Some heavy metals are naturally occurring in soil. They have been brought closer to the surface through mining and spread via smoke from manufacturing plants.
Many fertilizers and pesticides contain heavy metals (either intentionally or unintentionally). Even if a farmer doesn’t choose to use those fertilizers or pesticides themself, spray drift from another farm or even old residues from decades past can still contaminate the soil.
RELATED: 5 ways to avoid pesticides in food
And if heavy metals are in soil, they will be uptaken by plants. Plants use their roots to uptake minerals and nutrients from the soil, but they will also accidentally absorb heavy metals (which look chemically similar to some necessary nutrients).
Once these toxins are absorbed, they’re stored in the plant. But are they stored in the roots, the leaves, or the stem? It varies by species.
For example, lead and cadmium are stored in the leaves of spinach. But for plants with tubers, like carrots and sweet potatoes, lead tends to be stored in those roots. So unfortunately, plants often store these toxic metals in the same parts that we eat.
And remember, the heavy metals in soil often came from agricultural practices of decades ago. So even organic farms, which no longer use toxic municipal waste sludge for fertilizer or metal-laced pesticides, may still have toxic metals in their soil.
In fact, many organic fertilizers (including chicken manure!) contain high levels of heavy metals. So even buying organic does not avoid toxic metals in baby food.
And the other problem is this: We can’t just “remove” heavy metals from baby food. Anything that would remove the metals would also remove important nutrients from the food, just making it useless. So we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Is homemade baby food safer than store bought?
Naturally, the fact that there are toxic metals in baby food is alarming. You might feel an urge to rush out, buy a food processor, and start making your baby food yourself.
But before you go to all that extra work, consider this: Where do baby food manufacturers get their produce from? They have a similar supply chain as produce in grocery stores.
So the produce you’re tempted to buy so you can make homemade baby food doesn’t have any less risk than store bought baby food. Whether you’re the one doing the cooking and pureeing or a big box company is, it’s all the same.
I don’t say that to alarm you; I’m just trying to be realistic.
So if you enjoy making your own baby food, that’s great! No problem. But don’t do it because you think it will make your baby’s food safer.
Personally, I’ve introduced solids to my kids using baby-led weaning and loved it. But again, it’s not about avoiding toxins. It’s just that I think it’s great for babies to experience different tastes and textures of food, and I like giving them more control of their eating experiences.
RELATED: What is baby-led weaning (and why I love it)
How to avoid heavy metals for your baby
While there is no such thing as “heavy metal-free” baby food (or heavy-metal free food, for that matter), there are definitely some simple things you can do to reduce the toxic metal burden in your baby’s diet.
- Give your child a variety of foods. A wide variety of fruits, veggies, meats, and grains (aside from rice, ideally) will give your baby the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. In fact, having plenty of minerals like calcium and magnesium protects your baby from toxic metal exposures (Worried because your child has a narrow palette? Check out this article on how to help your picky eater).
- Choose more winter squashes instead of sweet potatoes or carrots. They taste similar and have similar vitamins, but winter squashes don’t store heavy metals the same way that tubers do.
- Avoid fruit juices. Many fruit juices contain elevated levels of lead and arsenic, and even just half a cup per day could be enough to increase toxicity risks for your child.
- Skip rice cereal. Rice takes up a lot of arsenic when it grows. Besides, rice cereal (or any baby cereal) is really not a great first food, but that’s a whole other blog post.
- Choose basmati rice instead of regular white or brown. If you do want to introduce rice to your baby’s diet (and there’s nothing wrong with having it occasionally), be sure to choose basmati, which has less arsenic.
- Skip puffs and teething biscuits. These are often made from (you guessed it!) rice. They are super-processed, have very little nutrient content, and may contain arsenic (Looking for teething relief? This article tells my very favorite natural teething remedy).
Conclusions on whether you should make your own baby food
I hope this article helps shed some light on whether you should make your own baby food.
And hopefully, Congress will take this report seriously, and the FDA will actually set some limits on the amounts of heavy metals found in baby foods. But until then, feed your baby a variety of foods, make sure they’re getting plenty of nutrients, and let go of the rest.
Any more questions on whether you should make your own baby food? Let me know in the comments. And don’t forget to grab your Simple Starting Solids Cheatsheet so you can protect your family from toxins throughout your house.