Note: This blog is not medical advice and is for informational purposes only. For any specific recommendations or questions, please refer to your child’s pediatrician or healthcare provider.
Heavy metals are a hot topic these days, and for good reason. Recent reports have signaled that we need to be doing more to ensure foods are safe and nutritious—especially for our most vulnerable populations. It’s also raised a lot of questions among parents and caregivers: what are heavy metals, how do they get into our foods, and how can we avoid them?
Recently, we hosted a Q&A in our private Facebook group with Jackie Bowen, Executive Director of Clean Label Project—a national nonprofit with the mission to bring truth and transparency to food and consumer product labeling. We’re sharing those questions anonymously below, to help you make informed decisions about your family’s food, too.
As a mission-led brand, one of the ways we’re able to help parents and caregivers minimize exposure to heavy metals is through our conscious partnership with Clean Label Project. Alongside Clean Label Project, Once Upon a Farm has been a longtime advocate for clean, safe nutrition for all, and we’re proud to continue to be a leading voice for positive change in our industry and beyond. Learn more about our partnership with Clean Label Project here.
Psst: Don’t miss the chance to ask your questions during our next expert Q&A!
1. What are heavy metals?
Jackie Bowen: According to the FDA, Arsenic, Lead, Mercury, and Cadmium—sometimes referred to as heavy metals or toxic elements—may occur naturally in the environment and are often at higher levels from past industrial uses and pollution. These contaminants have been prioritized due to their potential to cause harm during times of active brain development—in the womb through early childhood.
2. What are the potential risks of heavy metals exposure?
JB: The food safety regulatory fabric in America is largely focused on pathogenic microbiological contaminants—things like e.coli, salmonella, and listeria, which can [cause food poisoning, which causes vomiting], diarrhea, or worse within 24–72 hours. What we see is that consumers are increasingly concerned about how the food they eat and products they use are linked to long-term chronic disease- things like cancer and infertility.
This is especially relevant when talking about infants and children because of the number of calories they ingest everyday [is a larger fraction of their total weight than older children and adults]. The WHO, AAP, AMA, FDA, EPA, CDC, all say there is no safe level of lead. When it comes to lead exposure in children, [there is some evidence that] it can contribute to an increase in hyperactivity and a decrease in IQ. [Note: It is difficult to show the direct link of low level exposure to pesticides, heavy metals and plasticizers because it can take decades for a disease to manifest itself].
[Heavy metals accumulate in the body over time and] can disrupt function in vital organs and glands such as the heart, brain, kidneys, bone, liver, etc. Heavy metal exposure, especially lead, is associated with many cognitive and behavioral problems and is a significant risk factor for cardiovascular diseases, mental disorders, and kidney disease.
3. How do heavy metals get into baby food in the first place?
JB: The reality is that heavy metals are naturally occurring in the earth's crust. Back in grade school, when you saw the Periodic Table of Elements up on the wall, Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury, were right up there next to Oxygen and Hydrogen. However, because of human causes like mining, fracking, industrial agriculture, and the use of wastewater for irrigation, in the form of pollution, heavy metals can contaminate and become concentrated in certain soils and the water. Then, depending on a plant’s biochemistry, it can uptake these contaminants from the water and the soils. In the absence of federal regulations requiring brands to pay attention to heavy metal contamination, the onus is on brands to proactively and voluntarily think about [product] safety differently, for both my family and yours.
4. Are organic baby foods safer in terms of contamination?
JB: After testing thousands of certified organic and non-certified organic foods and consumer products, I can tell you with confidence that the organic promise of less exposure to pesticides absolutely holds true. However, organic has its limitations. The USDA National Organic Program (NOP) is silent when it comes to heavy metals. The unfortunate reality is that certified organic agriculture is a rounding error when it comes to food products in the United States.
While USDA organic doesn't allow the use of harsh synthetic fertilizers, it does allow the use of conventional compost on soil. Conventional compost is permitted by the USDA NOP because there is just not enough volume of certified organic compost to satisfy the soil fertilizer needed on organic farms! But this allowance comes at a cost. Conventional compost can come from conventional chicken litter facilities—concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). The feed, feathers, and waste materials are then taken and spread on certified organic soils. Government studies have shown that this can contribute to increased heavy metals concentrations on certified organic soils. When it comes to heavy metals, it is a worldwide problem.
[Once Upon a Farm Note: This is why we conduct extensive vetting and testing of raw ingredients and final products. It’s also why we partner with Clean Label Project to ensure that we are going above and beyond by testing for 400+ contaminants, including heavy metals and pesticides.]
5. What can I do to help keep the levels down on food I grow in my own garden?
JB: When it comes to things like maintaining your own garden, here are a few things to keep in mind. Remember, heavy metals are naturally occurring in the earth’s crust so there is no way to 100% avoid them. I really like using the Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) when it comes to figuring out what kind of soil nutrients that I need that are also not going to be harmful to my family’s health or the environment. OMRI is a resource that is utilized traditionally by certified organic farmers.
6. How can parents be sure that the baby food they are buying is safe?
JB: Lots of ways. First, look for the Clean Label Project mark on hundreds of baby food options for your family. Second, embrace diversity when it comes to feeding. Provide your child with lots of options to make sure that they are getting all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive.
Third, if a brand isn’t Clean Label Project certified, ask over social media about what they are doing to minimize heavy metal contamination in their products. Fourth, consider mixing it up [with a variety of different fruits, vegetables and grain based products]. Finally, work with your pediatrician as another trusted ally with a vested interest in the unique health needs of your child.
7. Do you have any rules of thumb for when products aren't Clean Label Project certified? I want to protect my child from heavy metals, pesticides, endocrine disruptors, etc.!
JB: First, the unfortunate reality is that the issue of heavy metals is pervasive and in the absence of federal regulations REQUIRING companies to factor in heavy metal contamination when it comes to food safety, brands have to take it upon themselves to proactively and voluntarily think about food safety differently—for my family and yours. The same butternut squash and sweet potatoes in the produce department is the same butternut squash and sweet potatoes that are in baby foods. The difference with brands that are Clean Label Project certified is that they are voluntarily opting into doing increased surveillance of their suppliers/farmers. So find comfort in knowing that there are brands out there doing that homework for you.
Second, I can say with absolute confidence after testing and reviewing thousands of test reports that the organic promise of less exposure to pesticide holds true. So going organic is a great option. I also understand that with this crazy economy we find ourselves in, that organic can be expensive or perhaps not available. When that is the case, buy organic where you can—perhaps make that commitment when it comes to your family’s favorite fresh fruits and vegetables.
Finally, it sounds like you are already doing an amazing job of being your child’s advocate. Use social media to ask questions and demand answers from brands, especially your family’s favorite uncertified brands. Ask your family’s favorite brands and products about what they are doing to minimize the introduction of heavy metals into their products. Asking over social media helps inform other readers too.
Here’s one other thing that I personally commit to with my son, feed your child a diet rich in antioxidants. Antioxidants fight free-radicals—basically they help prevent or delay cell damage. Exposure to things like heavy metals, pesticides, etc. can cause cell damage. So think of antioxidants found in yummy and nutritious fruits like strawberries, blueberries, and raspberries as an ally that help combat any exposure that your child may be getting.
8. If you could give someone advice on three things to focus on, what would those be?
JB: OK, if I was going to make a practical short priority list of what to focus on, here’s what I would do.
1. Have your water tested. While I spend 90% of my day talking about food safety, food safety originates with water safety. So many conversations in recent years on the impact of lead pipes on the safety of the drinking water supply. See if this is an issue for your community. This is so often overlooked. Even if you do find out that you have lead pipes in the area, there are amazing filters out there that can remove lead. (Just make sure you commit to actually changing out that filter when recommended)
2. Organic food is a great option because it will tick a bunch of boxes. Organic does not allow the use of [bio-engineered] organisms and organic also does not allow the use of harsh preservatives.
3. I would say commit to using glass storage containers as opposed to plastic in your home. So much new information is coming out on the impact of packaging migration issues and various plastics like BPA/BPS and phthalates. If you are able to transition from plastic to glass [for food storage], that is probably an easy solution.
[Once Upon a Farm Note: All of our packaging is BPA, BPS and PVC free.]
9. What actions are being taken by the FDA to address this issue of heavy metals in baby food?
JB: Following the Congressional investigation into the levels of heavy metals in top selling baby foods, the FDA launched its Closer to Zero program.
The FDA’s overall goal is to reduce dietary exposure to contaminants to as low as possible, while maintaining access to nutritious foods. The agency’s work to date has resulted in significant progress in reducing exposure to environmental contaminants from foods and Closer to Zero builds on this progress. This issue with Closer to Zero is that it is a several year process. Parents are trying to make the best and more informed choices for their family today. So while federal policy is on the right track, there is still work to do. You can read more about that progress here.
While the issue of heavy metals is across ALL foods, the FDA has prioritized foods commonly eaten by babies and young children because their smaller body sizes and metabolism make them more vulnerable to the harmful effects of these contaminants.
Remember, heavy metals are naturally occurring in the earth's crust so there is no way to 100% avoid them. Back in grade school when you saw the Periodic Table of Elements up on the wall, Arsenic, Cadmium, Lead, and Mercury, were right up there next to Oxygen and Hydrogen. However, because of human causes like mining, fracking, industrial agriculture, and the use of wastewater for irrigation, in the form of pollution, heavy metals can contaminate and become concentrated in certain soils and the water. In the absence of federal regulations requiring brands to pay attention to heavy metal contamination, the onus is on brands to proactively and voluntarily think about food safety differently, for both my family and yours.
10. I’m really intrigued by the First 1,000 Day Promise certification. Is this something you are actively expanding against? How does it differ from the Clean Label Project Purity Award?
JB: The impetus for creation of the First 1,000 Day Promise standard came from my own personal experience. The World Health Organization says that the first 1,000 days of life are critically important to long term health and wellness. It is the window of opportunity when optimum brain and immune system development are formed. These first 1,000 days begin at pregnancy through the age of two.
While there continues to be advocacy and regulatory calls to action for the quality and safety of baby food, the narrative has yet to expand to discuss the inextricable link between the health of a mother and her child. Why is no one talking about prenatal vitamins? Why is no one talking about formula? If we want to talk about baby food, then we need to be talking about all the foods targeting pregnant women, infants, children and lactating mothers. IF we are talking about BABY food safety, then all of these are important variables that are being left out of the conversation. But even as a mom of an 8-month old at the time, and the Executive Director of Clean Label Project, the Clean Label Project Purity Award didn’t have the necessary benchmarks for things like lactation cookies, which I was happily pounding daily in hopes of maintaining and increasing my milk supply.
Clean Label Project’s First 1,000 Day Promise standard is the first of its kind to utilize elements of European baby food regulations to set maximum contaminant thresholds for food, supplements, and other consumer products targeting pregnant women, infants, lactating mothers, and children. It’s meant to serve as a catch-all for all types of products marketed towards women and children. It’s based on a European regulation that has been around for nearly 30 years.