Pediatricians and parents alike are well aware about the dangers of lead exposure from chipping paint, toys, dishware and contaminated water. But what they might not know are the risks from baby food — yes, that’s right, baby food.
The Environmental Defense Fund recently released a report stating it found traces of lead in baby food samples, especially in juices and vegetables. The nonprofit organization evaluated data collected by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 2003 to 2013, which included more than 2,000 samples of baby food.
It found 89 percent of grape juice samples, 86 percent of sweet potatoes samples and 47 percent of teething biscuits samples contained detectable levels of lead. The samples studied were not identified by brand or food type, and the levels were considered to be relatively low.
“It’s creating a stir, but I don’t believe parents should be worried because it’s below the FDA’s defined threshold for lead,” said Dr. Joel Davidson, a pediatrician at Locust Pediatric Care Group and leader of the LEAD (Lead Exposure And Detoxification) Clinic at Akron Children’s Hospital. “Though no amount of lead is safe, it’s everywhere. It’s in our environment and in our soil, and that’s why the FDA is testing our food.”
Studies have shown high levels of lead exposure can be dangerous to developing brains, especially for children under 6 years of age. Lead exposure can lead to behavioral problems, developmental delays, difficulty with executive function such as decision making and learning issues. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) estimates 1 in 5 cases of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder is attributed to lead exposure.
The FDA has not recalled any foods because it’s below its established standards for lead. In response to these findings, the FDA said it’s continuing to work with industry experts to further limit the amount of lead in foods to the greatest extent feasible, especially in foods frequently consumed by children.
While these findings are alarming, Dr. Davidson and other pediatricians recommend parents do not deviate at all from infant feeding practices. That is to exclusively breast-feed until a baby is 6 months of age and then introduce pureed fruits, vegetables and proteins into her diet.
“The benefits of eating fresh fruits and veggies far outweigh the risks,” said Dr. Davidson. “It’s a balance of competing risks. That’s why it’s important to eat a varied diet and not stick to one thing. If you increase the variety in your diet, you’ll decrease the exposure while also keeping a well-rounded diet.”
He points to the phrase, “Eat the rainbow.” The idea is to eat foods of all the different colors of the rainbow as a way to incorporate more fruits and vegetables in your child’s diet.
“While we don’t know which brands or the types of foods affected, those most likely to be contaminated are foods grown underground – like potatoes, yams and carrots,” said Dr. Davidson. “Root vegetables grown in soil that has lead in it are more likely to have higher levels than a plant grown above ground.”
In addition, diets rich in iron, calcium and vitamin C can limit the absorption of lead.
He also recommends parents limit their children’s consumption of fruit juice to reduce their risk. The AAP recommends children under 1 year should not drink any juice anyhow, after recently updating its recommendations on juice consumption.
Parents also can check with the manufacturer of their favorite brands to ask whether the company regularly tests its products for lead and ensures that less than 1 ppb (parts per billion) of lead is in the baby food and juices it sells.
If you suspect your child has been exposed, contact your pediatrician for a blood screening. Unfortunately, symptoms normally don’t appear until dangerous amounts have accumulated in the blood.
“We’re not telling parents that baby food is dangerous,” said Dr. Davidson. “Yes, they found some lead, which can be dangerous. But it wasn’t high enough to reach a threshold of grave concern.”