U.S. Report of Heavy Metals in Manufactured Infant Foods
A U.S. report finds heavy metals in manufactured infant foods. Should we be concerned? Are heavy metals present in infant foods at unsafe levels? What should dietitians be advising parents to do? The PEN Team went looking for answers.
The Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy of the U.S. House of Representatives released a report stating that some products and ingredients marketed for infants contained high levels of toxic heavy metals (1). Assuring the safety of infant foods is essential for the healthy development of children, so the PEN Team decided to review the Committee’s report to determine the extent of the toxic heavy metals in foods manufactured for infants.
The heavy metals examined in the report included arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury (1). These findings were gathered from four food manufacturers’ submitted test results. Looking at Table 1
, arsenic levels in the tested infant food products were found to be as high as 180 parts per billion (ppb), lead as high as 50 ppb, cadmium 344 ppb and mercury, although rare, was as high as 10 ppb.
To determine if the levels of heavy metals were too high, the report presented a number of benchmarks (1). The main benchmark used for each of the heavy metals was the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) established standards for maximum allowable levels in drinking water (see Table 1
). However, Codex (Food and Agricultural International Food Standards) specifies that the maximum acceptable level for arsenic in food is 20 times the maximum acceptable level in water and for lead the difference is 10 times (2). The PEN Team wonders about using maximum levels for drinking water as the basis of comparison, since Codex guidelines recognize that water levels need to be lower than food, as water is consumed in greater quantities than food (2). We also noticed that none of the food products reported exceeded the Codex maximum levels for these metals in foods (see Table 1
When the PEN Team took a closer look at the Subcommittee’s report, we discovered that most of the testing for heavy metals was on the individual ingredients used to create the infant food products (1). Few finished food products were specifically examined. The ingredient with the highest amount of arsenic was amylase enzyme and the highest amount of lead was in one of the cinnamon samples (1). Both of these ingredients are likely present in very small quantities in foods. Therefore, one cannot generalize the findings of high heavy metal contents of individual ingredients directly to the finished food product because we cannot know how high the true amounts of heavy metals are in infant foods when only the contents of ingredients are reported.
Some ingredients that might be used in larger quantities had high amounts of arsenic (rice is known to accumulate arsenic as the plant grows) (3). For example, samples of organic rice flour from two different food manufacturers had amounts of 570 ppb (Beechnut sample) and 390 ppb (Hain sample) (1). These samples were both high compared to the FDA recommendation of no more than 100 ppb for infant rice/rice products (4) and Codex maximum level of 200 ppb for rice (2). However, those samples were unusually high as 92% of the other rice flour samples had arsenic between 100 and 200 ppb. Foods marketed as “organic” were as high or higher than those produced through conventional agriculture (1).
Table 1: Comparison of the Subcommittee Report Findings with International and U.S. National Guidelines for the Maximum Levels of Heavy Metals for Drinking Water and Foods
In Parts per Billion
Subcommittee Report: Maximum in an Infant Food (1)
Codex: Food Maximum Level (2)
FDA: Food Maximum Level for Infant Food (4)
Codex: Drinking Water Maximum Level (2)
FDA: Drinking Water Maximum Level (4)
100 for infant rice cereals
100 for foods,
200 for grains, 500 for meats
Establishing safety levels of heavy metals in foods is very complex. It requires careful consideration of many factors, including the concentration in the food, the amount consumed and its frequency, and the body size of the consumer (5). For a comprehensive review of the safety of arsenic in infant foods, see the PEN Trending Topic: Do New Parents or Parents-to-be Need to be Concerned About Dietary Arsenic Exposure?
Globally, the concentration of arsenic in rice and rice products is a common concern (5). In contrast to the findings of the Subcommittee report, studies from Health Canada and Food Standards Australia New Zealand found that the arsenic content of rice is lower than maximum permitted levels (6,7). In the U.K. where arsenic in some samples of rice exceeded the European Union Standards, the recommendation is to limit rice fed to infants to 20 g/day (8).
Rice, products made from rice, and fruit juices are foods that are typically higher in arsenic and these foods have historically been recommended or given to young children (5). Current advice is to give young children some meat as a source of easily absorbed iron, to offer a variety of infant cereals and grains, and to limit fruit juice (9). These strategies will help to keep young children’s arsenic intakes lower (5).
Until safe standards are established, the PEN Team recommends:
- People of all ages eat a variety of foods (10).
- Rather than purchasing foods specifically marketed for infants/children, young children's transition to eating a variety of food is best supported through family foods. Infants have difficulty obtaining sufficient iron, so dietitians should emphasize the importance of iron-rich foods (meat, meat alternatives and fortified infant cereals made from a variety of grains) (9).
- Dietitians are also encouraged to advocate for the development of heavy metal national standards for infant foods in all countries, including:
- safe limits determination
- standardization of testing
- transparency and labelling of amounts in manufactured infant foods.
The PEN Team would like to thank Becky Blair for contributing to this Trending Topic.
- Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy. Committee on Oversight and Reform. U.S. House of Representatives. Baby foods are tainted with dangerous levels of arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury. 2021 Feb 4. Available from: https://oversight.house.gov/sites/democrats.oversight.house.gov/files/2021-02-04%20ECP%20Baby%20Food%20Staff%20Report.pdf
- Food and Agriculture Organization, United Nations. General standard for contaminants and toxins in food and feed (CODEX STAN 193-1995). Adopted in 1995. Revised in 1997, 2006, 2008, 2009. Amendments 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019. Available from: http://www.fao.org/fao-who-codexalimentarius/sh-proxy/en/?lnk=1&url=https%253A%252F%252Fworkspace.fao.org%252Fsites%252Fcodex%252FStandards%252FCXS%2B193-1995%252FCXS_193e.pdf
- U.S. Food and Drug. Arsenic in rice and rice products risk assessment. 2016. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/food/science-research-food/cfsan-risk-safety-assessments (under Downloads)
- U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Metals in your food. 2020 Aug 24. Available from: https://www.fda.gov/food/chemicals-metals-pesticides-food/metals-and-your-food
- Dietitians of Canada. Trending Topic - Do new parents or parents-to-be need to be concerned with dietary arsenic exposure? In Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition [PEN]. May 2018. Available from: https://www.pennutrition.com/resourcestools.aspx?trcatid=496&trid=26806&sr=arseniccbabiedcbabiescbabycbabying. Access by subscription only.
- Canadian Food Inspection Agency. 2011-2013 arsenic speciation in selected foods. 2018 Sep 4. Available from: https://www.inspection.gc.ca/food-safety-for-industry/food-chemistry-and-microbiology/food-safety-testing-bulletin-and-reports/arsenic-speciation-in-selected-foods/eng/1467179764138/1467179789317
- Food Standards Australia New Zealand. Arsenic. January 2020. Available from: https://www.foodstandards.gov.au/consumer/chemicals/arsenic/Pages/default.aspx#:~:text=There%20are%20limits%20in%20the,a%20level%20of%202mg%2Fkg
- Menon M, Sarkar B, Hufton J, Reynold C, Reina V, Young S. Do arsenic levels in rice pose a health risk to the UK population? Ecotoxicol Environ Saf. 2020 Jul 1:197:110601. Available from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32302858/
- Dietitians of Canada. Infant Nutrition - Complementary Feeding Summary of Recommendations and Evidence. In: Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition [PEN]. 2019 Aug 06. Available from: https://www.pennutrition.com/KnowledgePathway.aspx?kpid=2503&trcatid=42&trid=2514 Access by subscription only.
- Dietitians of Canada. International Dietary Guideline Collection. In: Practice-based Evidence in Nutrition [PEN]. 2021 Jan 11. Available from: https://www.pennutrition.com/KnowledgePathway.aspx?kpid=3127&trid=19399&trcatid=27 Access by subscription only.