Parenting is part love, part worry, with the latter often related to your children’s wellbeing and health. When little ones are old enough to start eating solid food at around six months of age, a whole new range of concerns related to food emerge. One of these, for many parents, is related to heavy metal in food. Let’s take a look at some scientific facts about heavy metals in food, and what you should keep in mind when it comes to your child’s health and nutrition.
What are heavy metals and how do they occur in food?
Heavy metals are defined as naturally occurring elements that are present in the earth’s crust. Also known as trace elements, metals are literally, “heavy”: they have a high atomic weight and sink in water. They include copper, zinc, magnesium, and iron, as well as arsenic, cadmium, and lead.
It is believed these metals are brought to the earth’s surface by phenomena such as erupting volcanoes and earthquakes. They then get incorporated into soil and water, which of course are absorbed by crops and plants. Experts agree that it is hard to completely avoid or eliminate heavy metals in foods.
“Metals – both beneficial and harmful – are in many foods”, explains the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA). The natural occurrence of metals in soil and water, as well as in the air, is also noted by the FDA.
According to the FDA, metal levels found in food depend on many factors, including “growing conditions, industrial, manufacturing, and agricultural processes.” Some crops, like rice, naturally contain traces of arsenic, because they are grown under flooded conditions, and so absorb more elements (whether added or naturally occurring, or both) that are present in the water.
Sometimes, essential trace elements like iron are added to certain foods like cereal and bread by the manufacturer, to boost the overall nutritional value. This practice of fortifying foods and drinks with key nutrients is not new. For example, orange juice is often fortified with vitamin D, and many soy and almond milks have added calcium.
The impact of metals on health
The effect of metals on health depends on the amount consumed, the type and properties of the metal, as well as a person’s age and developmental stage, explains the FDA.
Some metals are needed by the human body for good health maintenance, and in children for, proper growth development. For example, research shows essential dietary metal iron is crucial for brain development, which in turn is linked to learning ability and other important cognitive functions for children. The dietary metal magnesium is needed for energy production and heart health. And another dietary metal— potassium—is important for nerve and muscle health, as well to move nutrients into and waste products out of cells.
Other metals, like cadmium and arsenic, provide no benefits to the human body and can be toxic when ingested in concentrated or high levels.
Heavy metals in baby food: The facts
Recent news about heavy metals in commercially produced baby food may have left you with many questions. Let’s take a look at some facts on the matter:
What metals does baby food contain?
Most commercially produced baby foods should ideally contain only approved levels of essential metals like iron, magnesium, potassium that are beneficial for your baby’s health, as mentioned above. These should be listed on the packaging, along with the quantities.
Will heavy metals in baby food harm my little one?
High quantities of metals—even the beneficial ones—when consumed over the approved levels, will have a negative effect on a child’s health. The good news is that commercially prepared baby food generally contains low levels of heavy metal. Also, many baby food manufacturing companies have stringent quality and safety control measures in place that are monitored by scientific and governmental bodies. As long as you offer your child a variety of healthy foods, you generally do not need to be too concerned.
How about organic baby food?
Most, if not all foods will contain traces of heavy metals— including organic baby food. Heavy metals are naturally found in both soil and water, and traces can be found in all produce, even organic, as identified by studies. Therefore, organic foods often contain similar levels of heavy metals as non-organic foods.
Can I avoid heavy metals if I make my baby’s food at home?
Unfortunately, you cannot, as it is almost impossible to avoid metals in grains, fruits, and vegetables. Remember that they are present in the earth and water and so, are absorbed by all types of crops. Also, unlike many commercially produced baby foods which are routinely quality tested and under the scrutiny of various monitoring organizations, the same cannot be done when buying your own produce to make your own baby food.
However, you can follow some safety tips (see below) when preparing your child’s food at home to ensure optimum nutritional value, hygiene and safety.
Food safety tips for parents to keep in mind
There is no reason for mums and dads to panic over the presence of heavy metals in baby food. Keep the following food, nutrition and safety tips in mind that are relevant to both commercially prepared and homemade baby food:
- Ensure your child gets a balanced diet when they are ready to eat solid foods at around six months of age. They should be offered a mix of fruits, vegetables, meats and fish, and grains to get adequate nutrition that will fuel their physical and cognitive development.
- Alternate the types of foods you offer your child. Rotating foods could help minimize the overconsumption of heavy metals and ensure your little one gets a varied, balanced diet that contains all key nutrients.
- While rice cereal fortified with iron provides your child with a good mix of nutrients, it shouldn’t be the only option. Also offer other fortified cereals made with, for example, barley, oats and multigrain. This will help minimize the possible overconsumption of metals by eating only rice cereal.
- Fish contains essential nutrients like Omega-3-fatty-acids and protein, crucial for healthy brain development in your child. However, larger types of fish like swordfish and shark may contain higher levels of heavy metal mercury. Try to avoid these types of fish as much as possible, and instead opt for smaller fish like cod or salmon. However, even if you can’t always avoid larger types of fish, there is no need to worry too much. The Singapore Food Agency states that severe poisoning due to eating fish that contain high levels of heavy metals is rare and may only occur in the event of severe ocean pollution.
- Finally, always speak to a medical professional if you have any concerns or doubts about your child’s health and nutrition.