The presence of heavy metals in foods has been a problem for decades. Yes, decades. This includes arsenic in baby food.
As early as 1977, the levels of arsenic in food have been a concern in the United States . Crops can absorb heavy metals from air, soil, or water . So in reality, heavy metals are unavoidable in food sources. But the good news is that we can reduce their levels.
Where does arsenic in baby food come from?
Arsenic content in rice varies depending on where it is cultivated , , .
For example, rice from states that had cotton fields has a higher arsenic content when compared to California rice. This is because arsenic-based pesticides that were once used on cotton still contaminate the soil .
As it turns out, levels of arsenic in rice depend on the levels of arsenic found in the surrounding soil . Another example is Bangladesh where the levels of arsenic are in the highest range , . In contrast, Basmati rice (India and Pakistan) and jasmine rice (Thailand) have the lowest arsenic content .
Rice is not the only concern. And arsenic is not the only heavy metal to worry about. For example:
- Arsenic has been found in apple juice, vegetables, fruits, fish, shellfish and other foods , . An arsenic limit has also been established by EPA for drinking water .
- Other heavy metals such as lead, cadmium, and mercury can be present in food sources or baby food.
Arsenic levels in other grains such as wheat, barley, maize, sorghum, and millet are lower when compared to rice , . If you’ve been offering baby rice cereal to your little one, you may want to explore multi-grain baby foods.
And what about organic rice?
Unfortunately, because heavy metals can be absorbed through the soil, organic products do not guarantee low arsenic levels.
Arsenic and other heavy metals in baby food
Arsenic levels are even more important in the context of baby food.
When adjusted for body weight, babies ingest three times more rice than adults. This has to do with the introduction of fortified infant rice cereals. Typically, the peak for rice consumption is around 8-months of age .
In 2016, a study from the New Hampshire Birth Cohort Study tested arsenic levels in one-year olds who ingested rice cereal and other rice-containing foods, such as rice snacks. Researchers found that this group of toddlers excreted higher amounts of arsenic in urine .
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken action against heavy metals in food, including infant rice cereal . According to the FDA, inorganic arsenic levels should be less than 100 parts per billion (100 μg/kg) , , , . This is also the limit recommended by the World Health Organization for drinking water .
In 2018, the FDA reported that 76% of the samples from infant rice cereals on the market were at or below the 100 ppb level . However a report from 2019 written by a nutrition advocacy group claims otherwise .
They found that 4 out of 7 samples exceeded the 100 ppb limit .
Arsenic was also not the only heavy metal present in baby food. Baby or children’s food can contain lead, cadmium, and mercury. Because of this, the FDA created a plan called “Closer to Zero” to reduce the levels of overall heavy metals in food ingested by babies or children .
It is important to note that, when analyzing the report from the advocacy group in more detail, they flag rice-based foods and snacks as high in arsenic when they are in fact lower than the 100 ppb limit .
How to avoid arsenic and other heavy metals in baby food
The FDA, the Healthy Babies, Bright Futures organization, and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest the following to minimize your baby’s exposure to arsenic in baby food:
- Babies need iron-fortified foods. Offer other iron-rich foods besides fortified infant rice cereal , , .
- Infant rice cereal fortified with iron is a good source but there are alternatives such as infant cereals based on oat, barley, and multigrain , , , .
- Focus on a well-balanced, varied diet, including different grains , , 
- Avoid foods containing brown rice sweetener, limit fruit juices, and do not use rice milk as a replacement for cow’s milk , .
- Cook rice in excess water (from 6 to 10 parts water to 1 part rice). Then you can pour off the excess water before eating the rice. This sole practice can reduce inorganic arsenic levels by 50%. Although, doing this might also reduce the levels of some important nutrients , , . A method called Parboiled and Absorbed (PBA) (where water is boiled first, then rice is added to cook for 5 min; water is discarded, and then the rice is cooked using the absorption method in fresh deionised water) was able to reduce arsenic levels up to 73% in white rice .
- If possible, breastfeed your baby for the first six months of life .