Over the past 20 years, the CDC has recorded a consistent increase in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnoses in children across the US (1 in 44), leaving many experts wondering what exactly may be responsible for this alarming rise. Out of the numerous potential causes driving autism’s prevalence, a growing body of clinical literature suggests that heavy metals in infant nutrition products represent a severe neurotoxic threat.
In February 2021, the Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy released a scathing report detailing the inadequate standards and practices that US baby food manufacturers employ, which have allowed the widespread contamination of their products with high levels of heavy metals. Even more concerning, out of the 7 companies asked to provide internal data, 3 outright refused to cooperate with the Subcommittee’s demands.
Are Heavy Metals Connected to ASD?
While it’s widely accepted that ASD is influenced by both genetic and environmental factors, experts have yet to determine the precise underlying causes leading to the condition’s onset and development. Extensive research over the past decades suggests a high correlation between ASD and infant dietary exposure to heavy metals.
A study by the National Institute of Health aimed to test this hypothesis, using pairs of twins to rule out expected genetic factors. The results conclude that children with autism showed higher lead concentrations in their teeth than their non-ASD peers.
Babies and toddlers face a higher risk of toxic exposure due to their naturally higher rate of nutrient absorption and underdeveloped filtering systems unable to adequately filter out heavy metals, which end up accumulating in bodily tissues. Over time, these metals act as neurotoxins and cause irreversible damage to the nervous system and brain, including decreased IQs, behavioral affectations, and neurologic deficiencies.
Report Finds High Concentrations of Toxic Metals in Baby Food Products
In its first report, the Subcommittee reviewed the information provided by manufacturers that complied with demands, namely Gerber, Nurture, Beech-Nut, and Hain. They uncovered that heavy metal levels in baby foods were multiples times higher than FDA safety standards regulating other consumer products.
- Mercury – x5 higher
- Cadmium – x69 higher
- Arsenic – x91 higher
- Lead – x177 higher
Despite their initial refusal to cooperate with the Subcommittee’s investigative efforts, Sprout, Campbell, and Walmart eventually subsided and provided the requested information. The Subcommittee’s updated September 2021 report confirmed its suspicions of even more extensive contamination being obscured by the formerly-uncooperative manufacturers.
Parents Can Significantly Reduce Their Baby’s Exposure to Dietary Toxic Metals
Even though heavy metals are naturally present in the environment, and completely eliminating them can be a difficult task, baby food companies are ultimately responsible for their products’ safety. However, the industry’s largely self-regulating nature enables manufacturers to avoid comprehensive final product testing that would incur additional financial expenses on their part.
Given the baby food industry’s limited and tepid response to the ongoing contaminant crisis, concerned parents have been increasingly seeking alternatives that don’t pose a risk to their children’s wellbeing. Luckily, there are several common-sense options that parents can use to drastically reduce their infants’ exposure to harmful metals in baby food.
Breastfeeding Is Crucial
To ensure a healthy start in life, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants should be breastfed for at least 6 months and up to a year. Breastfeeding provides vital nutrients, antibodies, and cells from the mother that increases infant immunity.
Breastfed infants have an overall lower risk of developing chronic diseases and are less likely to develop allergies or childhood deficiencies. During this period, lactating mothers should be cautious of their own intake to prevent their toddlers’ indirect exposure to environmental metals.
Rice Holds Higher Arsenic Counts
Due to its cultivation in ample bodies of water and intrinsic absorbent structure, rice can take up to 20 times more environmental arsenic than other commercial crops. Because of this, rice is the only ingredient regulated by the FDA in baby food products at a disputed 100 parts per billion arsenic limit.
Although strains of rice like basmati are considered safer, especially after being thoroughly washed, parents should consider safer substitutes that share a similar texture and nutritional value, such as oats, barley, quinoa, wheat, maize, rye, or soy.
Avoid Mercury-Rich Fish
While fish and various seafood may be highly nutritious options for growing toddlers, parents should be mindful of their choices. Certain species, usually predatory in nature, tend to have higher levels of arsenic and should preferably be avoided; examples include king mackerel, big-eye tuna, swordfish, marlin, and shark.
Instead, safer and healthier options that parents can opt for include salmon, herring, anchovy, canned light tuna, sardines, lobster, scallops, or shrimp. Parents should be wary of any allergic reactions and never feed their children uncooked fish, including sushi.
Healthy Babies Bright Futures’ 2019 report was instrumental in bringing the heavy metal contamination crisis to the public’s attention. On top of the revealing facts concerning questionable baby food products available on the market, the report also provides several recommendations to reduce dietary heavy metals:
- Multi-grain or rice-free infant cereals and snacks can lower arsenic levels by 84% – 93%.
- Replacing teething biscuits with chilled or frozen fruits or vegetables reduces exposure to cadmium, arsenic, and lead.
- Substituting fruit juices for water lowers exposure to mercury and lead by 68%.
- A more varied selection of vegetables can help offset heavy metals from crops like carrots or sweet potatoes by 74%.
It should also be noted that just because a product is labeled “organic,” it doesn’t necessarily mean that it doesn’t contain heavy metals. Parents likewise have the opportunity to request safer and healthier replacements through the Toxic Baby Food Replacement Initiative, which sources products from ethically-responsible manufacturers that provide options explicitly tested for neurotoxic heavy metals.
About the Author
Jonathan Sharp presently serves as CFO at Environmental Litigation Group P.C. The law firm from Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in toxic exposure cases and assists parents whose children developed debilitating illnesses due to harmful contaminants in baby food.