The report this week about dangerous amounts of heavy metals in many popular baby foods has many asking — ok so, what’s in my formula?
By Kim Chappell, Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann and Dr. Christina Berberich
Parents are collectively scratching their heads this morning asking, “wait what’s in my baby’s food?’” after a new Congressional Report shed light into the dangerous amounts of heavy metal contaminants found in many popular baby food brands.
The report, covered by almost every major news outlet in the U.S., dug into the discrepancies between the amount of heavy metals that these baby food companies reported in each ingredient and additive vs. the total amount of heavy metals found in the finished baby food product. The report showed that finished products made for infants when tested had concerningly high heavy metals levels.
The issue at hand is that The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not set legal standards for heavy metals in baby foods, leaving it up to each baby food manufacturer to follow what they determine to be best food safety practices and what constitutes a quality final product.
The report showed that the baby foods tested had high lead levels, mercury levels, arsenic levels, and cadmium levels, and were found in infant foods like infant rice cereal, puree squeeze packs, and rice flour puffs (you know, our go-to snacks for baby!).
Higher levels of those heavy metals can cause issues for brain development and cognitive function in young children later in life.
While heavy metals cannot be completely avoided in any agricultural product because many of these elements occur naturally in the soil and water, and therefore in low levels in food, water, and even breastmilk, we wanted to help parents understand what to do with this new information about environmental health and high levels of toxic heavy metals, and what it means for one of the most precious developing-brain-foods of all — baby’s formula.
We wanted to clear the air on this report and what we know about what it means for infant formula, which was not a part of this report. It’s important to note that infant formula is under different guidelines and stricter testing standards than baby food or even toddler formulas. Infant formula in the U.S. cannot be bucketed in the same category from a regulation stand point as baby food or toddler formulas.
The team at Bobbie wants to assure parents that our formula is rigorously tested for heavy metals and it starts with how we choose our suppliers. Every single supplier that creates an ingredient for Bobbie must pass stringent quality testing, including for heavy metals. By the time a can of Bobbie reaches a parent’s doorstep it has gone through 2000 plus quality checks from farm to bottle. Furthermore, Bobbie’s DHA is sourced from algae, not fish, which can be a source of dangerous levels of mercury. Bobbie also does not include any rice based product where inorganic arsenic levels are typically higher. And lastly, while we wait for the FDA to level up their standards on this front, we have held ourselves accountable to being below the maximum allowable EU levels for heavy metals in powered infant formula.
So what can you do to limit your baby’s exposure to heavy metals in other products? We sat down with Bobbie’s Head of Regulatory, Dr. Christina Berberich, a pharmacist and dietitian, and Dr. Jacqueline Winkelmann, a Board Certified Pediatrician with more than 20 years experience.
Q: First off, do parents need to be worried about heavy metals in infant formula?
Dr: Berberich: I can’t speak for all infant formulas, but only what we know to be true for the process at Bobbie. I feel confident that Bobbie has chosen suppliers based on their safety record and attention to quality. Suppliers must comply with rigorous testing. Furthermore, the final Bobbie product undergoes its own rigorous testing, including testing for heavy metals.
Q: What can parents do now that they have this information to try and limit exposure to heavy metals?
Dr. Winkelmann: Look for information from independent sources like the Clean Label Project.
Aim for less processed foods, limit foods that are known to be a source of heavy metals like rice, and offer your baby a variety of different foods. Toxicity is dose-dependent, so offering your baby different types of foods will go a long way in avoiding excessive exposure to the same potentially dangerous substance.
Q. Reports like this create a lot of distrust between baby brands and parents- how are parents supposed to know what is safe?
Dr. Winkelmann: Knowing where your (or your baby’s) food comes from is important in making sure it is safe. Do your research, especially on infant formulas and baby foods. Understanding the sourcing of ingredients and the safety standards in the manufacturing process will give you peace of mind.
Q. Does the FDA have a set standard for heavy metals in baby formula?
Dr. Berberich: Unfortunately not. What is unique about baby formula as opposed to baby food is that other quality testing on nutrient levels and harmful bacteria is mandated by FDA. For US infant formula manufacturers, product safety involves not just what is not in the product but what is. What I mean by that is, since infant formula is developed to be the only source of nutrition for an infant it must contain the right amounts of all essential nutrients that are needed for growth. Infant formula manufacturers need to show that their product can both grow an infant and are safe to consume. When it comes to heavy metals, infant formula manufacturers need to consider that this product may be the only food a baby may consume for months. At Bobbie, we test all incoming ingredients for heavy metals and once the product has been made we test again just to make sure. Over the 35 plus years our manufacturer has been making infant formula, they have a clear understanding of where our risks are and do everything they can to mitigate those risks.
Q. Does the EU have stricter standards for heavy metals in baby food than the US?
Dr. Berberich: Well since the US does not have any, yes. However, some EU standards have been called out for being too lax. Personally, I feel that having some standard is better than none because it drives the regulatory body to audit manufacturers and enforce when these standards are not being met. It also makes a clear line in the sand that reputable manufacturers will not cross.
Q. Does being USDA Organic make an impact on potential heavy metals found in baby food or formula?
Dr. Berberich: Possibly, but as we can see from the data provided in this report, it is not a guarantee. Lot selection (picking out certain batches of a bulk ingredient based on test results) can be a way to reduce heavy metal loads and simply not using certain ingredients that we just can’t limit heavy metals in are better paths to safer baby food.
Q. What should regulators do with this information?
Dr. Berberich: This should be a wake up call for them. This is an example of how regulations can truly impact our daily lives. I hope to see in coming days and months FDA taking this report seriously and building guidance to increase the safety of all infant food products. Guidance isn’t the same as a regulation but it can provide manufacturers the information they need to be in compliance quickly. As we have seen with testing data noted in this report, there is a clear issue here that the Agency needs to find a remedy for sooner rather than later.
Thanks so much Dr. Berberich an Dr. Winkelmann for helping us make sense of all of this information. If you have any more questions please leave them in comments below or follow us on Instagram.