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Kids' Fruit Juices Contain 'Concerning Levels' of Heavy Metals, According to New Report

Kids' Fruit Juices Contain 'Concerning Levels' of Heavy Metals, According to New Report

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Plus, which fruit juices are safe to give your kids.

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A recent report put together by the team of retail experts at Consumer Reports found that many popular kids' fruit juices contain alarming amounts of heavy metals, including arsenic, cadmium, and lead. As described in the report, consuming these juices over long periods of time, or in large amounts, could not only be dangerous for both children and adults.

Consumer Reports collected samples of more than 45 juices sold in stores across the U.S., including multiple varieties such as grape, pear, apple, and fruit blends. They found that more than half of their samples had elevated levels of heavy metals. The samples included popular products such as Juicy Juice, Honest Kids, Minute Maid, Welch's, and Whole Foods' 365 Everyday Value.

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According to the report, these metals are found naturally in many foods and beverages and heavy metal levels in fruit juices have gone down since earlier tests in 2011. But the elevated levels found in this test are still concerning to medical professionals. James Dickerson, the chief scientific officer for Consumer Reports, said that regularly consuming even small amounts of these drinks could pose a serious health risk.

"In some cases, drinking just 4 ounces a day—or half a cup—is enough to raise concern," he said.

Jennifer Lowry, M.D., chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council, weighed in on Consumer Reports' lengthy report. She said nearly 75 percent of children enjoy at least one serving of juice per day, which is enough for these metallic elements to have an impact on development. It also is enough to be concerning for adults who drink juice, too.

“Heavy metals are things that can cause a variety of ailments in children and adults—everything from neurological issues to cancer," Dickerson said. "We certainly want to ensure that the industry continues to do a better job to reduce the presence of these in the products that we buy."

More health news you should read now:

The report found seven of the juices tested could harm children who drink just half a cup or more each day, whereas nine products could pose risks to those who drink a cup or more each day. Juice boxes were also included in these results—grape juice and juice blends had the highest concentration of heavy metals out of all of the products. Interestingly enough, organic juices did not perform any better on these tests than non-organic options.

The CR report delves into how juice brands within the beverage industry could have the ability to reduce exposure to heavy metals by changing how they source fruit, as well as how they process and package drinks. But there is also guidance on which fruit juices were best among those that were tested, and CR shared their top picks in each category that we're highlighting below.

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

1) 365 Everyday Value Organic 100% Apple Juice

2) Apple & Eve 100% Apple Juice

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

3) Goya Pear Nectar

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

Goya's bottled product was presented as one of CR's top picks for alternative fruit juices.

4) Ocean Spray Cran-Apple and Ocean Spray Cran-Grape

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

5) Capri Sun 100% Apple Juice Boxes

6) Juicy Juice 100% Organic Apple Juice

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

A full 64-ounce bottle will run you around $3, but this apple juice variety doesn't contain any added sugar.

7) Honest Kids Organic Juice Drink, Goodness Grapeness

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

8) Minute Maid 100% Juice, Apple White Grape

Photo courtesy of Amazon.

Heavy Metals Have Been Found In Some Fruit Juices & It's Cause For Concern

Parents have become a little more aware of just how unhealthy some fruit drinks are, thanks to excessive sugar amounts, but now there's something else to be concerned about. According to a new report, heavy metals have been found in many popular fruit juices. The levels found can impact both kids and adults, so this is concerning for everybody.

Consumer Reports, a non-profit consumer research and advocacy group, tested 45 popular fruit juices sold across the United States, including apple, pear, grape, and fruit combos, according to an article by the organization's magazine. It ran a similar test in 2011, as reported by Today, and although findings have somewhat improved, there's still a lot of work to be done.

They ended up finding 21 juices had enough of at least one heavy metal to cause concern among experts, as USA Today reported, and that included drinks marketed towards children.

"Our test focused on cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic (the type most harmful to health) because they pose some of the greatest risks, and prior research suggests they are common in food and drink," according to the report from Consumer Reports.

Kids are particularly at risk to the effects of these heavy metals, per Consumer Reports. It doesn't take much to have an impact. Consumer Reports' chief scientific officer, James Dickerson, told Consumer Reports that drinking just 4 ounces of a juice that has these sorts of heavy metals each day is enough to cause concern.

Each juice that was tested had "measurable levels" of at least one of heavy metals for which they were looking, according to Consumer Reports. However, of all the juices tested, there were seven juices that could actually negatively affect kids who drank at least a half a cup each day, including juices like R.W. Knudsen Organic Just Concord Grape Juice, 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods) Organic 100% Juice, and Welch’s 100% Grape Juice, Concord Grape.

Trader Joe's, one of the brands of juice tested, told Consumer Reports, "We will investigate your findings, as [we are] always ready to take whatever action is necessary to ensure the safety and quality of our products."

Consumer Reports included a full list of products tested on its website. But in general, the group recommended that parents consider cutting down on how much juice their kids are drinking. Although it may be a popular go-to beverage for kids, it just might not be that good for them.

The American Pediatrics Association, for example, now says parents shouldn't give kids younger than one any type of fruit juice, as USA Today reported in a different article. Dr. Melvin B. Heyman, who helped co-author the AAP's statement, said, according to USA Today, "Parents may perceive fruit juice as healthy, but it is not a good substitute for fresh fruit and just packs in more sugar and calories. Small amounts in moderation are fine for older kids, but are absolutely unnecessary."

In its statement, the AAP went on to recommend fruit juice should be limited to half a cup each day for toddlers ages 1 to 3. For kids ages 4 to 6, there should be a restriction of a half a cup to three-quarters of a cup ounces each day. And finally, for kids 7 to 18, there should be a daily limit of 8 ounces, or about a cup.

Now, you may be wondering how heavy metals even get into fruit juice. According to CBS News, heavy metals and the like can end up in food because they're naturally present in air, water, and soil. However, certain manufacturing and packaging processes can also lead to the presence of heavy metals in foods and drinks.

This is where the Food and Drug Administration comes in. Although Consumer Reports' findings come about six years after the FDA set a new limit on the level of arsenic allowed in apple juice, that "new" limit hasn't actually been finalized yet. According to its report, Consumer Reports' director of food policy initiatives said, "We encourage the FDA to finalize the limit as soon as possible."

If you or your kids are big juice drinkers, make sure to look through Consumer Report's list to see how your juice tested. It's worth knowing what's in the food that you and your kids might be eating on a regular basis, particularly if they could be causing serious effects on your health.

Many parents are feeding babies solid food too soon, CDC says

Congressional investigators asked seven of the largest U.S. baby food manufacturers to provide internal documents and test results.

Four of the companies — Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain and Gerber — responded to the requests. Three others — Walmart, Campbell and Sprout Organic Foods — didn’t cooperate, leaving investigators “greatly concerned” about what they might be obscuring, the report noted.

The investigation found internal company standards permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals, and manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels.


Health & Wellness Inorganic arsenic levels in some baby rice cereals are too high, FDA says

They also “eclipse” the levels of such metals the government allows in bottled water, including up to 91 times the arsenic level, up to 177 times the lead level, up to 69 times the cadmium level, and up to five times the mercury level.

The report called on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals allowed in baby foods and require mandatory testing of the finished products.

Nearly Half of Kids’ Fruit Juice Contains Lead, Arsenic & More: Report

Fruit juice might seem like a healthy option, but it’s faced criticism as a “healthy” option for the amount of sugar it contains. Now a new report from Consumer Reports has found “concerning levels” of heavy metals in kids’ juice.

Consumer Reports recently tested 45 popular juice brands sold across the country and found elevated—and potentially harmful—levels of arsenic, cadmium and lead in nearly half of the brands tested, including juices branded specifically for kids. Every product tested had measurable levels of at least one of the heavy metals including cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead and mercury.

Twenty-one of the 45 juices had concerning levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and/or lead. Of those 21, seven could harm kids who drink 4 ounces (half a cup) or more per day another nine brands pose risks to kids who drink 8 ounces (one cup) or more per day. Five of those products were packaged in juice boxes or pouches.

The report also found that grape juice and juice blends had the highest average heavy metal levels and that organic juices did not have any lower levels of metals than conventional ones.

“Exposure to these metals early on can affect their whole life trajectory,” says Jennifer Lowry, M.D., chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Council on Environmental Health. “There is so much development happening in their first years of life.”

So what can parents do to keep kids safe? The best way to minimize exposure to heavy metals in fruit juice is to lower the consumption of fruit juice. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) already recommends limiting juice intake because of the sugar levels that can contribute to risk of developing cavities and obesity. The AAP recommendation is no juice before age one and limited levels for kids one and up. Ultimately, it is up to parents to research the products they buy and decide what is best for their families.

You can see the full Consumer Reports chart on the juices tested here.

Which Fruit Juices Are Safe For Your Kids?

New testing from Consumer Reports shows concerning levels of heavy metals in some of the most popular juice brands.

There might be a good chance the fruit juice you are serving your kids contains some sort of heavy metal. New testing conducted by Consumer Reports set out to find which fruit juice products contained potentially harmful levels of heavy metals. The findings are a bit alarming for many parents who serve juice to their children daily.

Consumer Reports tested a variety of popular fruit juices including, apple, grape, and fruit blends. After testing 45 different brands, researchers found elevated levels of arsenic, cadmium, and lead in more than half the juices they tested. Many of these juices were marketed specifically for children.

According to a recent poll by Consumer Reports more than 80 percent of parents who have children 3 and under serve their kid's juice occasionally. Some kids are accustomed to drinking juice more than once a day. The report is concerning because young children are particularly vulnerable to the harmful effects of heavy metals.

So what exactly did the Consumer Reports testing find? They looked at 45 juices. Brands included 365 Everyday (that’s Whole Foods generic brand), Apple & Eve, Capri Sun, Great Value from Walmart, Gerber, Honest Kids, Market Pantry from Target, Minute Maid, Nature’s Own, Ocean Spray, Trader Joe’s, Welch’s among a few other top brands.While each of the products tested had measurable levels of at least one of the following heavy metals: cadmium, inorganic arsenic, lead or mercury – 47 percent had what researchers deemed “concerning” levels of one of the three cadmium, inorganic arsenic, or lead.According to Consumer Reports, 7 out of the 21 juices that had concerning levels of heavy metals could potentially harm children who drink 4 ounces or more a day, while 9 of them have a possible risk when children consume 8 ounces or more.Juices That Have Potential Risk at 4 oz or more:1. Trader Joe's Fresh Pressed Apple Juice, 100% Juice2. 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods) Organic 100% Juice, Concord Grape3. R.W. Knudsen Organic Just Concord Grape JuiceJuices That Have Potential Risk at 8 oz or more:1. Gold Emblem (CVS) 100% Apple Juice2. Great Value (Walmart) 100% Juice, Apple3. Trader Joe's Organic Apple Juice

For the entire list check out the full chart.

Out of the different flavors that were tested, grape juice and juice blends had the highest average of heavy metals. And just because the labeling has organic on it doesn’t necessarily make it better. In this case, organic juices did not fare any better or worse than the other juices tested.Parents and Pediatricians worry about heavy metals because they are known to have adverse effects on a young child’s development. Depending on the duration and how long a child has been exposed heavy metals can affect IQ scores, cause behavioral problems, and other health issues such as type 2 diabetes.The risk from heavy metals comes from chronic exposure which is why it’s important to reduce exposure in both children and adults. Parents, you can always limit your child’s juice consumption. The American Academy of Pediatrics has recommended limiting juices because of the high sugar content found in the beverages which can contribute to its own set of health problems like tooth decay and obesity.

However, if the juice is on the menu at your house, here are some alternative choices that did well in the Consumer Reports test:365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods) Organic Apple Juice, 100% JuiceApple & Eve 100% Juice, Apple Juice1Big Win (Rite Aid) 100% Juice, Apple Juice

First, what exactly are "heavy metals"?

Heavy metals are naturally occurring elements that are found throughout the earth's crust. Air, soil and water all contain these metals they are in the ground we walk on and in the water we drink. Five specific elements &mdash arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury &mdash have high degrees of toxicity and rank among the priority metals that are of great public health concern. At high levels, they can be harmful and toxic to the human body. "Heavy metal exposure in infants has the potential to damage the developing brain leading to neuro-developmental effects including lower IQ, cognitive impairments and behavior problems," says Robert Coles, MD, Pediatrician at UC San Diego Health.

But some heavy metals, like iron and zinc, are essential for our bodies to function. Metals such as copper, iron, magnesium, selenium and zinc are considered essential nutrients inadequate intake of these micronutrients can result in deficiency complications and lead to disease. "Zinc is an essential mineral involved in immune function, growth, development, wound healing and cell production. Zinc deficiency can lead to stunted growth in children and adolescents," says Megan Meyer, PhD, Director of Science Communications at the International Food Information Council. She also points out that iron plays an important role in moving oxygen around in the body, a reason why iron is intentionally added to foods like breakfast cereals and infant formulas for enhanced nutrition.

Consumer Reports study finds “concerning levels” of heavy metals in baby and toddler foods

(Washington, D.C. – August 16, 2018) A new report released today by Consumer Reports shows “concerning levels” of lead, cadmium, and inorganic arsenic in baby and toddler foods. The watchdog organization tested 50 nationally distributed packaged baby and toddler foods and found measurable levels of at least one of the three heavy metals in every product, with levels they deemed “worrisome” in about 2/3 of the products. The report builds on previous findings from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) about heavy metals in infant and toddler food and points to an urgent need for action from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and food manufacturers to better protect children.

“While the effects of exposure to a heavy metal in a single food may not affect a child, what is concerning is the cumulative impact of exposure to low levels of cadmium, inorganic arsenic, and lead from all food in the diet,” said Tom Neltner, EDF Health’s Chemicals Policy Director. “Protecting children’s ability to learn and thrive demands that we drive down exposure to heavy metals from all sources – including food.”

For the study, Consumer Reports purchased three samples of 50 baby and toddler foods – available in the spring of 2018 – from different retailers across the country and tested the products for cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic. The foods included cereals, snacks, entrees, and fruits and vegetables. Key takeaways from the testing included:

  • Each of the 50 products had measurable levels of cadmium, lead, and/or arsenic.
  • About 2/3 of the products had at least one heavy metal at levels considered “worrisome” by Consumer Reports.
  • Organic foods were as likely as conventional foods to have heavy metals, because the organic standard is focused on pesticides and not these contaminants.
  • Products with low or no measureable levels of heavy metals indicate manufacturers can achieve safer foods.

“Food that is marketed for babies should be held to a higher standard,” said Maricel Maffini, EDF’s science advisor for food. “Consumer Reports was right in calling for a goal of no measurable levels of these heavy metals in baby food and that FDA needs to set aggressive incremental targets to drive progress.”

EDF has previously reported on the issue of lead and other heavy metals in infant and toddler foods. In June 2017, we released Lead in Food: A Hidden Health Threat. The report examined data collected and analyzed by FDA from 2003 to 2013 and found lead detected in 20% of baby food samples compared to 14% for other foods. Eight types of baby foods, including fruit juices, root vegetables, and teething biscuits, had detectable lead in more than 40% of the samples.

In December 2017, EDF provided an update to the report with FDA testing data for lead from 2014 to 2016. It suggested good news for fruit juices (a category that Consumer Reports did not test) but stubbornly high detection rates for snacks and root vegetables. Consumer Reports reaffirms the need for greater diligence from FDA and baby food manufacturers.

While FDA has taken important steps on this issue by committing to reduce levels of heavy metals to the greatest extent practicable, the agency still needs to take concrete action to drive down cadmium, lead, and inorganic arsenic levels in food – especially children’s food. To accelerate needed action, EDF recommends that FDA update its standards and make clear that international standards for lead in fruit juice are inadequate. Baby food manufacturers must test for heavy metals throughout the supply chain in order to identify and reduce all sources of contamination.

Healthy eating requires safe, nutritious food. EDF hopes Consumer Reports’ new study draws attention to the issue and prompts food manufacturers and FDA to do more to drive down levels of heavy metals in our food supply.

Web Exclusive

Juice is almost as ubiquitous in early childhood as teddy bears, crayons, and blankies. In a Consumer Reports (CR) survey of 3,000 US parents, 80% of parents of children aged 3 and younger provide their kids with fruit juice at least sometimes, and 74% of those parents give their kids juice at least once a day.

It&rsquos no wonder, then, that media outlets have been abuzz since the release of a CR report in late January wherein researchers found &ldquoconcerning levels&rdquo of arsenic, cadmium, and lead in almost one-half of apple, grape, pear, and fruit blend juices tested. While these findings are undoubtedly scary for parents, RDs can help lead the charge in putting the results into context and providing actionable steps to keep children healthy and safe.

CR&rsquos Findings
CR tested 45 popular fruit juices from 24 brands for arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead, as these heavy metals are fairly common in foods and beverages, including infant and toddler foods, rice and rice products, protein powder, and in the environment. The report claims that, at certain levels, these heavy metals can put children at risk of lowered IQ, behavioral problems such as ADHD, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.

CR decided which juice brands to sample based on sales and marketing data from the New York and New Jersey area and which brands were available nationally. Samples were purchased nationwide and some online.

For the testing, &ldquoconcerning levels&rdquo were defined by health-based exposure limits set by the US Environmental Protection Agency for inorganic arsenic and mercury, California&rsquos Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment for lead, and the European Food Safety Authority for cadmium.

The following are some of CR&rsquos findings:

• All juices tested contained some arsenic, cadmium, lead, or mercury.
• Twenty-one (47%) of the 45 juices tested contained concerning levels of arsenic, cadmium, and/or lead.
• Seven of the 21 juices with concerning levels could pose a risk to children who drank more than 4 oz per day, and nine could be harmful at 8 oz per day.
• Grape juice and juice blends contained the highest average levels of heavy metals.
• Five of the juices with concerning levels are sold in 4- to 6.75-oz boxes or pouches and pose a risk to children at more than one box or pouch per day.
• Heavy metal levels in organic juices and those marketed as being for children didn&rsquot differ from conventional juice or those marketed to adults.

CR notes that its results &ldquowere a spot check of the market and should not be used to draw definitive conclusions about specific brands.&rdquo

Recommendations for Clients
&ldquoJuice is something that&rsquos really alarming for parents,&rdquo says Isabel Maples, MEd, RDN, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (the Academy) based in Washington, D.C., who specializes in children&rsquos nutrition. &ldquoWhen there&rsquos a food scare like that, then dietitians should be the trusted voice.&rdquo So how can RDs help parents who are feeling afraid or helpless about these findings?

For starters, it&rsquos essential for RDs to let clients know that heavy metals are found in all produce. When plants take in water from the soil, heavy metals that naturally occur in the soil are absorbed as well. Some soil has more heavy metals due to pollution from industry or agriculture, but it&rsquos rare that the levels are high enough to be of concern typically, varying which fruits and vegetables one eats is an easy way to reduce exposure. In addition, Maples points out that the FDA tests foods for heavy metals multiple times per year, focusing especially on products often given to children, such as juice. &ldquoWe have one of the safest food supplies in the world,&rdquo she says.

But imparting this message isn&rsquot always easy Maples says that during food scares, people&rsquos concerns are high, but their trust is low, meaning their ability to take in messages is reduced. She emphasizes keeping recommendations clear, simple, and actionable.

RDs can encourage parents to do the following:

• Mix up the kind of juice offered. For example, parents &ldquodon&rsquot always have to give kids apple juice or a juice blend,&rdquo Maples says. Switching varieties regularly should limit kids&rsquo exposure to heavy metals present in any one type of juice.

• Change the portion size. Maples points out that the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend no more than one-half of children&rsquos daily fruit calories come from juice, and this guideline is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Wesley Delbridge, RDN, a Phoenix-based spokesperson for the Academy specializing in child and school nutrition, views juice as a sweet treat, a &ldquosometimes food&rdquo he allows his own son to consume maybe once per week. &ldquoJuice is really sweet, so kids can get used to that sugary taste over time and want more and more of it,&rdquo he says, suggesting parents offer less juice and more water or fat-free or low-fat milk over time.

• Don&rsquot just rely on juice for fruit intake. CR&rsquos report &ldquogives dietitians the opportunity to say, &lsquoYes, you need fruit, but you don&rsquot have to rely on juice,&rsquo&rdquo Maples says. She says RDs can help parents incorporate fruit into meals and snacks, such as offering sliced fruit dipped in peanut butter or adding raisins to a peanut butter sandwich.

Delbridge recognizes that juice can be convenient for parents but says that more nutritious and/or lower-calorie options, including small containers of milk and water and presliced, prebagged fruit such as apples or grapes, can be just as quick and easy to throw in a lunch bag or grab on the way out the door.

Maples provides an important caveat: &ldquoWe have to meet people where they are. If people aren&rsquot eating any fruit, then juice is a better choice than a fruit they&rsquore never going to pick up, like a whole apple,&rdquo she says.

• Use strategies to minimize lead absorption. If reducing juice intake isn&rsquot an option or can&rsquot be done overnight, RDs should empower parents to take steps to reduce their kids&rsquo lead absorption. Maples says calcium in foods such as milk, yogurt, and green leafy vegetables competes with lead for absorption. She says kids with empty stomachs are more likely to absorb more lead as well, so parents should be sure to feed them regular healthful snacks.

Maples also points to adequate iron intake as a preventive measure. Lead and iron attach to the same transport protein in the small intestine that deposits them throughout the bloodstream, brain, and body consuming too little iron ramps up that protein&rsquos activity, causing it to absorb more lead than if iron intake was sufficient. RDs can recommend iron-containing foods such as lean red meats, iron-fortified grain foods, dried fruit, and beans and lentils, and let clients know they can pair these foods with vitamin C–rich foods such as tomatoes, citrus fruits, and peppers for maximum iron absorption.

Bottom Line
Delbridge and Maples agree that, in spite of CR&rsquos findings, RDs need to keep the big picture in mind and focus on the positives when counseling patients.

&ldquoIt&rsquos not clear in the report how much [juice] over time is too much,&rdquo Delbridge says, so it&rsquos hard to draw conclusions about the true risk. He&rsquod rather see a focus on &ldquoalternatives&rdquo—such as more nutritious beverages and whole fruit consumption—than trying to pinpoint juice as &ldquogood&rdquo or &ldquobad.&rdquo

Maples says that, in the big picture, CR&rsquos report doesn&rsquot change what RDs already know about the benefits of whole fruit consumption. It also doesn&rsquot undermine the recommendations on limiting kids&rsquo juice intake from the AAP, the Academy, and the FDA. Maples recommends RDs quote these reputable third-party sources when counseling clients.

&ldquoThis is an opportunity for dietitians to talk in unison&rdquo to encourage more whole fruit consumption, Maples says. RDs know, &ldquodespite this food scare, what&rsquos really important is that people increase their fruits and vegetables,&rdquo she says. &ldquoNo matter what study you look at, it shows that people who eat more fruits and vegetables are going to be healthier.&rdquo

Consumer Reports finds heavy metals in fruit juices

Jan. 30 (UPI) -- Testing by Consumer Reports reveals concerning levels of arsenic and lead, in addition to unhealthy levels of sugar, according to a report published Wednesday.

CR said half of the 45 brand name apple, grape and pear juices it tested have high levels of the metals, suggesting parents should give their children less of the beverages.

"In some cases, drinking just 4 ounces a day -- or half a cup -- is enough to raise concern," James Dickerson, chief scientific officer at Consumer Report, said in a news release.

Heavy metals can lower the IQ levels of children and put them at risk for behavioral problems, cancer and type 2 diabetes, according to CR.

"Exposure to these metals early on can affect their whole life trajectory," said Jennifer Lowry, chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Council on Environmental Health. "There is so much development happening in their first years of life."

Lead can also cause problems with adults, including bladder, lung and skin cancer, in addition to reproductive problems.

More than 70 percent of kids age three and under drink fruit juice, according to the survey.

This news comes as studies show kids prefer juice drinks over milk and other beverages, though another showed that water is the beverage most preferred by children.

The lead guideline set by the FDA for juice is 50 parts per billion, 10 times higher than the amount in bottled water.

"Some foods are more likely than others to contain toxic heavy metals, and it's important to minimize these foods in your family's meals," says Amy Keating, a nutritionist at CR. "This is yet another reason to provide your child with a healthy and varied diet of whole foods."


Lead, arsenic and cadmium are commonly found in baby foods, but also in many of the ingredients families use to make their own.

A congressional report found that four major baby food brands — Beech-Nut, Gerber, Earth’s Best Organic and HappyBABY — sold products that their own internal testing showed contained arsenic, lead and cadmium at levels far higher than what most health experts consider safe for infants. | Mario Tama/Getty Images

When Congress released a report this month finding that popular baby foods contain worrisome levels of toxic heavy metals, the reaction was swift.

Scary headlines blared from the New York Times to the Daily Mail, lawsuits were filed within days and throngs of parents, already beleaguered from the stresses of the pandemic, took to social media with the fire of a thousand suns. “You knowingly sell food that hurt babies for profit,” one mom wrote on a baby food company’s Instagram page. “You are MONSTERS.”

But the intense blowback against baby food makers obscured an even larger problem, watchdogs say: Heavy metal contamination is relatively common across the food supply, so infants aren’t the only children vulnerable to possible health effects, and the federal government is doing next to nothing to reduce their exposure.

The Food and Drug Administration has yet to take any action, despite having spent three years quietly exploring the issue of toxic contaminants in food during the Trump administration.

“This is not a baby food problem. This is a food problem,” said Tom Neltner, chemicals policy director at the Environmental Defense Fund, which has lobbied for more regulation of heavy metals.

The congressional report, released earlier this month by a House Oversight Committee panel, found that four major baby food brands — Beech-Nut, Gerber, Earth’s Best Organic and HappyBABY — sold products that their own internal testing showed contained arsenic, lead and cadmium at levels far higher than what most health experts consider safe for infants.

In the days following the report, each of the baby food companies sought to reassure parents that their products are safe and that they follow very high standards for sourcing ingredients, but it’s done little to lessen the blowback.

Though in some cases the companies knew their ingredients contained elevated levels of heavy metals, the baby food makers at the center of the investigation weren’t violating any rules because the FDA has not set standards for most heavy metals in baby food.

The FDA, which has historically focused most of its attention on foodborne pathogens like Salmonella and Listeria, in 2017 launched a working group to look at heavy metals and other contaminants in food, cosmetics and supplements to little fanfare — a move that was partly a reaction to an EPA study from earlier that year that found food was a surprisingly significant source of lead exposure for young children.

A chart that was buried in supplementary material in the study showed that about half of blood lead exposure for most children between the ages of 1 and 6 comes from food. The next biggest contributors: soil and dust (including from lead-based paint), air and water.

Significant problem

It’s an important revelation because lead exposure remains a significant public health problem in the United States. One study estimated that preventing all lead exposure in just the babies born in the year 2018, for example, would deliver $80 billion in societal benefits, in large part due to the increased earnings potential of children with higher IQs and fewer behavioral and health problems.

About two million children, or nearly 10 percent of all young kids, are estimated to consume more lead than the FDA’s current limit each day, according to the government’s own estimates.

Lead is among the best-known and best-studied neurotoxins, but arsenic, cadmium, and mercury are also routinely found in foods at low levels. As scientists have begun to better understand the health risks from long-term, low-level exposure, and labs have grown better at detecting contaminants at very low levels, more attention has turned to the food supply.

The issue has been on the FDA’s radar, but there have been no changes to any food standards.

Now, with the fresh public outrage over baby food, the Biden administration faces pressure to act, even as it is still without a nominee for FDA commissioner.

The agency, in a statement to POLITICO, said it is reviewing the congressional subcommittee’s baby food report.

“The FDA takes exposure to toxic elements in the food supply extremely seriously, especially when it comes to protecting the health and safety of the youngest and most vulnerable in the population,” an FDA spokesperson said in an email, noting that heavy metals are found throughout the environment. “Because they cannot be completely removed, our goal is to reduce exposure to toxic elements in foods to the greatest extent feasible and we have been actively working on this issue using a risk-based approach to prioritize and target the agency’s efforts.”

The FDA did not respond to the criticism that it’s been slow to act on the issue, but did acknowledge “that there is more work to be done.”

The reality is that concerning levels of lead, arsenic, mercury and cadmium can routinely be found in many foods, including rice, sweet potatoes, carrots, juices and spices. The contamination is happening throughout the food supply — not just in baby food — which means that parents cannot avoid heavy metals simply by making their own food.

Crops pull up heavy metals from soil, where some of the metals are naturally occurring but much of the contamination stems from more than a century of pollution, from car exhaust to coal emissions and agricultural chemicals.

Emissions spread heavy metal particles through the air where they eventually settle into soil and water. In the early 20th century, it was common for farmers to use pesticides made with lead and arsenic, especially to grow cotton in the south. Heavy metals don’t degrade, which means crops grown decades later can absorb old contaminants through their roots.

“Parents can’t solve this problem by shopping in the produce aisle and not the baby food aisle,” said Jane Houlihan, research director at Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a nonprofit focused on reducing babies’ exposure to toxic chemicals. “FDA has to take action.”

Small amounts

The good news is that the general population’s exposure to heavy metals has been going down over time, particularly after the government started phasing out leaded gasoline, paints and food cans in the 1970s, which led to a steep drop off in blood levels of lead in children. The bad news is that scientists have only recently come to better understand just how damaging heavy metals can be, particularly for babies and young children, even at very, very low levels.

Even exceedingly small amounts of these neurotoxins can impede a child’s IQ, hinder brain development, lead to behavioral problems, increase cancer risk, and raise the chances of many other diseases. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, maintains there’s no known safe blood level of lead in children.

“What’s come into clearer view is that this is an urgent public health problem,” Houlihan said.

Right now, parents and other caretakers are essentially at the mercy of whatever standards baby food companies decide to set for themselves — and the extent to which they actually conduct their own tests and hold themselves to those internal standards.

Exactly how low the limit should be for heavy metals in baby food is a matter of debate, but public health advocates contend it should be as low as possible — and there is broad agreement that the few standards FDA currently has are not strict enough to protect babies and young children.

Back in 2013, FDA proposed a voluntary limit for inorganic arsenic in apple juice at 10 parts per billion and the agency has still not finalized the guidance more than seven years later.

Consumer Reports has since pushed for a limit of 3 ppb for all juices, arguing that the agency’s initial guidance — which companies tend to take seriously — was a step in the right direction, but didn’t do enough to mitigate the risk of developmental problems posed by arsenic exposure.

In 2016, the FDA, responding to outside pressure from Consumer Reports and others, set a voluntary limit for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal at 100 ppb, but the agency set this level based on cancer risks and what was feasible for the industry at the time, not neurological development risks, which have been shown at much lower levels. Public health advocates have urged the agency to lower this limit.

The agency has also been criticized for lax oversight. Independent tests have shown infant rice cereal makers sometimes sell products that exceed the standard with no repercussions.

Developmental harm

There are no federal standards for lead in baby food, but the FDA has set a 5 ppb lead standard for bottled water, 50 ppb for juice and 100 ppb for candy. By comparison, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends a 1 ppb limit for school drinking fountains — a threshold that consumer advocates would like to see applied to juice, too.

Cadmium has received far less attention compared to other toxic metals like arsenic and lead, but it’s also prevalent in the food supply. FDA has no standards on cadmium in any foods. Consumer Reports has urged the agency to set a limit of 1 ppb for cadmium in fruit juice.

But heavy metals have prompted the greatest concern by far when found in baby food because infants and young children are the most vulnerable to developmental harm. In 2017, the Environmental Defense Fund analyzed FDA’s own routine testing of the food supply and found there were measurable lead levels in 20 percent of baby products tested.

The same year, a Colorado-based nonprofit called the Clean Label Project tested some 500 of the country’s best-selling baby foods — one the largest samples to date — and found that nearly 40 percent contained at least trace levels of one heavy metal and 25 percent contained all four, though overall the levels were relatively low.

The following year, Consumer Reports tested 50 popular baby food products and found two thirds contained “worrisome levels” of at least one heavy metal. They reported that 15 of the products tested would pose health risks to children if regularly consumed. Products containing rice and sweet potatoes were particularly likely to test positive. Organic products were just as likely to be contaminated as conventional products.

The House Oversight subcommittee got the idea to look into baby food after another report in 2019 by Healthy Babies Bright Futures, a nonprofit, tested nearly 170 products and found heavy metals present in 95 percent of their samples. Most foods had relatively low levels, but there were product categories that showed higher levels, including lead in carrots and sweet potatoes and particularly arsenic in rice. Four of the seven infant rice cereals tested exceeded FDA’s voluntary limits for inorganic arsenic. The group is urging FDA to set standards for baby food, arguing that repeated exposure at very low levels adds up and poses health risks.

The congressional report this month was based on data that companies voluntarily turned over to the subcommittee. The report reveals that many of the ingredients and products that were tested by companies themselves contained heavy metals at levels that exceed even generous voluntary limits and even some companies’ own internal limits.

“Our worst fears were confirmed,” a senior Democratic committee aide told POLITICO.

It’s difficult to draw broad conclusions about the baby food supply from the report, since it’s not clear how often companies are testing or how much of their own data they turned over to the committee, but the data that were released show numerous examples of significant levels of heavy metals getting through the supply chain and onto store shelves.

For instance, HappyBABY, an organic baby food brand, sold products that tested positive for lead at levels as high as 641 ppb and arsenic as high as 180 ppb, nearly twice FDA’s limit for rice cereal. Nearly 20 percent of the company’s finished products contained over 10 ppb of lead, according to the committee.

In a statement to POLITICO, the company said the data presented in the report was based on “a small portion” of its portfolio and is “not representative generally of our entire range of products at-shelf today.”

“We are disappointed at the many inaccuracies, select data usage and tone bias in this report,” the company said in an email. “We can say with the utmost confidence that all Happy Family Organics products are safe for babies and toddlers to enjoy, and we are proud to have best-in-class testing protocols in our industry.”

Beech-Nut, which markets itself as a “real food” brand, used nearly 90 different ingredients that had tested positive for lead at more than 15 parts per billion, including cinnamon that had been shown to be as high as 886 parts per billion.

Beech-Nut Nutrition said the company is currently reviewing the congressional report and will continue to support setting “science-based standards that food suppliers can implement across our industry.”

“We want to reassure parents that Beech-Nut products are safe and nutritious,” the company said.

Industry standards

Most of the companies targeted by the subcommittee’s investigation, including Gerber and Hain Celestial, which makes Earth’s Best Organic, are part of a group called the Baby Food Council, a partnership with Cornell University and the Environmental Defense Fund to set industry standards for baby food. Three other leading companies didn’t turn over testing data to the committee.

Nonetheless, the findings of the congressional report sparked concern bordering on panic by many parents and other caretakers, especially a year into a pandemic that’s upended schools, jobs, childcare and family support for millions of families.

Emily Oster, a popular economist and author on parenting issues, wrote that she was inundated with so many emails from parents that she moved her weekly newsletter up a few days to help answer questions. (She concluded that more rigorous government standards make sense and parents might consider cutting back on rice products, but should otherwise try not to worry about this too much.)

Moms flooded the social media pages of baby food brands with blistering anger. Some said they’d been in tears over the news, thinking they’d harmed their children. Several demanded to see testing results, threatened to sue, or said they were planning to take their children to the doctor to have their blood tested for heavy metals. Others said they were tossing out all their store bought food and boycotting the companies in the report.

“I have spent this last year home schooling and trying to figure [out] child care,” wrote one mom of three to Beech-Nut on the company’s Instagram page, who said her youngest had been born right at the start of the pandemic. “I have been worried sick that family would get sick. Now I learn I have something completely new to worry about.”

Every expert POLITICO interviewed for this story said it was unfortunate that parents might think they need to avoid all pre-made foods, particularly at such a stressful time.

The fact is that making baby food from scratch would probably not meaningfully reduce a child’s exposure to heavy metals. Digging deeper into the congressional report, it’s clear that many common ingredients can be contaminated and a caretaker has no way of knowing whether the sweet potatoes, kale and cinnamon in their own kitchen are any less contaminated than what baby food companies are sourcing.

The more fundamental issue, advocates say, is that there aren’t standards in place to pressure the supply chain to reduce exposure as much as possible.

“FDA has failed. They failed to set standards for baby food that companies have to meet. And they’ve failed to help, busy, sleep-deprived parents make better choices,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president of government affairs at the Environmental Working Group.

“The idea that new parents are going to navigate this is insane,” he added. “We’re not all nutritionists and toxicologists.”

The House subcommittee that sparked the firestorm earlier this month is planning to do more oversight on baby food, a senior Democratic committee aide told POLITICO. It makes sense to first focus on babies and small children because they are the most vulnerable to the developmental harm from heavy metals, the aide said.

“If you fail to address it here, there will be no broader action,” the aide said.

The subcommittee is working on a bill that would require FDA to come up with standards for heavy metals in baby foods and put in place testing requirements, among other things. Even if such a bill becomes law, it would likely take FDA several years to set such standards, if the agency’s past timelines are any indication.

“We don’t want to wait for that,” the committee aide said.

House Democrats are optimistic that the Biden administration will be open to working on this issue. One hopeful sign: Biden’s pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services, which sits atop FDA, is Xavier Becerra, the former attorney of California who in 2018 sued two toddler milk companies over allegations they sold products with elevated levels of lead. Becerra’s office also recently went after seafood companies for selling products contaminated with lead and cadmium.

Becerra’s crackdown on seafood processors reflects a recognition that toxic-metal contamination affects more than just baby food.

Practical steps

While parents await action from the FDA, there are some practical steps they can take to protect their children from elevated levels of metal contaminants, health and consumer advocates say: Avoid or limit rice products for infants and young children. Oatmeal infant cereal or other grain cereals, for example, can contain far less arsenic. Brown rice tends to contain higher levels of arsenic than white rice.

Rice puff and teether snacks appear to sometimes test at concerningly high levels of arsenic. Until more is known, it may make sense to swap in other snacks to cut back on potential exposure.

Parents can also cut back on juice, since apple and grape juice commonly contain low levels of arsenic and lead, and instead choose water or milk. Certain vegetables like carrots and sweet potatoes, while healthy options overall, have been shown to contain more heavy metals than others, so serving a wide variety of vegetables is a good idea.

Pediatricians across the country, all of a sudden hounded by questions about heavy metal exposure, have tried to strike a balance for worried parents: Don’t panic. Focus on variety. The American Academy of Pediatrics released tips for parents, suggesting that they can also have their home water tested for heavy metals — in addition to making slight shifts in the diet — but ultimately: “Stronger rules and regulations for testing and limiting the amount of heavy metals in foods for babies and toddlers are most important.”

Phil Landrigan, a pediatrician and children’s health researcher at Boston College who played a crucial role in the government crackdown on lead decades ago, agrees that FDA action is urgently needed.

Ultimately, this is not a problem that should fall to caregivers to navigate, especially when low levels of these toxins have sweeping health consequences for future generations, he explained.

“Parents have done nothing wrong,” he said. “They’ve been hoodwinked by these companies and failed by their government.”