Researchers find ‘concerning’ gaps in US food regulations

Posted: 6 February 2023 | | No comments yet

A team of researchers led by the University of Buffalo found the US does not have rigorous regulations for baby food.

Bowls with healthy baby food on color background

A recent study led by the University of Buffalo, US, have found the US does not have strict regulations for commercially produced baby foods that are likely to contain toxic metals. The study was recently published in Science Direct.

“It is concerning that there are gaps in food contaminant federal guidelines, particularly for baby foods. Parents might expect and trust that their infant’s commercially produced baby food is automatically protected by tightly regulated guidelines, but that is just not the case,” said the study’s lead author, Dr Sarah Ventre.

The team decided to research the issue after reports of toxic metals in baby foods became more widespread in 2019, prompting families to raise safety concerns. The researchers reviewed several recent studies, all of which have reported that toxic elements such as arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium have been found in popular baby foods, in an effort to help parents, caregivers and health care professionals make sense of the potential risks and offer guidance.

After the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) developed an action plan for reducing toxic metals in baby foods in 2019, it issued draft guidance for lead in juices in April 2022 and lead in baby foods just last month. But the FDA has not yet offered guidance for arsenic, mercury or cadmium, leading to concerns that regulatory changes may not be coming quickly enough.

Toxic elements can be consumed from a variety of sources, including water, baby formula, breast milk, homemade purees and baby foods like cereals, fruits and vegetables and fruit juices. When toxic elements are ingested with food or water, they are absorbed in the gastrointestinal tract and enter the bloodstream.

Infants and young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of exposure to toxic elements, the researchers note, adding that little research has been done to identify the extent to which toxic element exposure from diet contributes to the health effects that can be caused in children exposed to such metals early in life. Those effects include cognitive function deficits, lower socioeconomic status and difficult personality traits well into adulthood for children exposed to lead. Arsenic, meanwhile, is associated with lung and bladder cancers in adulthood.

While some parents may want to eliminate certain food products because they fear they could be exposing their children to toxicants, the researchers say that is not the best course of action. Instead, they suggest feeding children a varied diet consisting of many different foods and food types.

“It is important to focus on the fact that although foods have been found to contain toxic elements, several of these foods are rich in nutrients that are necessary for children’s growth and development,” said paper co-author Dr Gauri Desai.

In addition to varying a child’s diet, the researchers also recommend ensuring clean drinking water, providing breast milk for the first one to two years if possible, and limiting juice intake.

When it comes to baby formula, while there is some data on which brands may have the lowest levels of heavy metals, it remains challenging to identify which formulas are safest, researchers say, adding that parents and health care providers can advocate for tighter FDA control parameters for infant formula.

“While providing guidance to parents and health care providers is important, the most conclusive way to protect the safety of food ingested by infants and children is through the establishment of stronger guidelines and enforcing those guidelines,” added Ventre.

Jackie Bowen, Executive Director of the Clean Label Project told New Food the issues surrounding baby food and infant formula are “just the tip of the iceberg”: “Heavy metal contamination is a systemic food industry issue. Focusing on finished products in the absence of focusing on ingredient quality and in the absence of caring about soil health and in the absence of caring about environmental policy is fundamentally flawed and short-sighted.”

While the FDA are developing plans to reduce toxic metals in baby foods, it is clear that more guidance is needed for other materials such as arsenic, mercury or cadmium.