A slew of recent studies have found scary amounts of arsenic in baby food. According to the World Health Organization, arsenic has been linked to developmental defects, cardiovascular disease, neurotoxicity, diabetes and cancer.
Since rice cereal is often a baby’s first solid food but often has high levels of arsenic, one advocacy group is suggesting that parents switch to cereals made with other grains, such as oatmeal, barley and quinoa.
“Parents have a lot of easy ways to reduce their babies’ exposure now, because there are so many new cereal options on the market. Many are fortified with iron that babies need, and many are just as affordable as rice cereal,” said Jane Houlihan, research director for Healthy Babies Bright Futures, an alliance of scientists, nonprofit groups and private donors aiming to reduce children’s exposures to chemicals that may harm developing brains.
The Food and Drug Administration has proposed limits for the amount of arsenic allowed in infant baby cereals, but the regulations have not yet been put into effect. In 2016, the FDA proposed a recommendation of no more than 100 parts per billion of arsenic in infant cereal, but that is not a requirement.
Jennifer Lowry, pediatrician and toxicologist at Children’s Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Mo., said the FDA standard on arsenic is ineffective.
“There are too many baby foods that continue to have too high of levels,” Lowry said.
The Healthy Babies Bright Futures organization commissioned Brooks Applied Labs in Bothell, Wash., to test more than 100 samples of infant cereals, including 45 products made by nine different companies. The lab’s report found that oatmeal, barley, buckwheat, organic quinoa, wheat and rice-free multigrain baby cereals contained much lower amounts of arsenic than rice cereals. The study found an average of 85 parts per billion of arsenic in the rice cereals.
“We welcome the data provided by Healthy Babies Bright Futures and will review it in its entirety to inform our efforts in reducing inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal products,” the FDA said. “The FDA continues to advise consumers to feed infants and toddlers a variety of fortified infant cereals, rather than relying solely on infant rice cereal.”
Diversifying the grains in your baby’s cereal is one easy fix. Another way is to make your own baby food.
“Even the baby foods that are labeled as ‘organic’ or ‘all natural’ can still contain significant amounts of contaminants like lead and arsenic, so the best baby food is the one that you make yourself,” said Dr. Keith Fabisiak, assistant chief of pediatrics at Kaiser Permanente’s Campbell Medical Center.
Fabisiak suggests that parents invest in a food processor to make the chore easier. He suggests making a batch of baby food and then freezing it overnight in an ice cube tray. The next morning you can pop out the frozen cubes of baby food into a larger freezer container for storage. Each cube will contain about one ounce of homemade baby food, so all you need to do is to let a few cubes thaw for each meal.
The American Academy of Pediatrics counsels parents to reduce the risk of arsenic exposure by also limiting fruit juices, avoiding brown rice syrup in processed foods, and avoiding the use of rice milk as a dairy substitute.