Lead, BPA, arsenic in baby food? Cleveland dietician shares what to look out for

Aubrie Novotny makes her own baby food. (Source: WOIO)
Aubrie Novotny makes her own baby food. (Source: WOIO)
Aubrie plays with her baby Aria. (Source: WOIO)
Aubrie plays with her baby Aria. (Source: WOIO)

CLEVELAND, OH (WOIO) - You won't see them spelled out on the ingredient labels at the grocery store, but lead, BPA and even arsenic could be in the products you feed your baby every day.

Cleveland19 is digging for answers after a recent study found an alarming chemicals in baby food and formula.

Clean Label Project, a nonprofit, tested 530 baby food products.

In a study published in late 2017, researchers found 65 percent of products tested positive for arsenic,

Thirsty six percent for lead, 58 percent for cadmium and 10 percent for acrylamide.

Sixty percent of products claiming to be BPA free-- tested positive for BPA.

All of these metals and chemicals can be dangerous to people, especially developing babies.

"The time has come for brands to step up and take ownership for what is in their products, both good and bad," said Jackie Bowen, the executive director of Clean Label Project, in a video on their website.

That's not all the study found.

Nearly 80 percent of infant formula samples tested positive for arsenic.

And surprisingly, organic baby food products tested had two times the arsenic compared to traditional baby foods.

The study, posted on their website, allows consumers to search by baby food or formula for ratings based on product purity and value. The ratings range from zero to five stars for the best quality.

"Clean Label Project was formed with the mission to serve as the catalyst to change the definition of food and consumer product safety in America. Clean Label Project believes that when it comes to environmental and industrial contaminants, less is better than more. Not only are the compounds potentially hazardous, knowledge on the long-term effects of exposure to these contaminants is concerning and still developing," the website says.

Cleveland 19 went to a clinical dietician for answers

"It's a little bit of scare-mongering, where it's not warranted. I like the idea of raising awareness about chemicals in our environment. I think that is something we all need to be aware of," said Janet Kramer with University Hospitals Rainbow Babies and Childrens Hospital.

She pointed out the Clean Label Project study was not peer reviewed, and wonders how big the difference is between baby foods rated at three stars versus five stars.

"I have questions. I don't think it's as transparent as it should be. It listed some of the chemicals and some of the way they were measured but they didn't really tell you how they did the breakdown for each product," Kramer said.

Kramer says baby formulas are one of the most regulated products on the market and she trusts what's on the shelf.

One finding from the study she agrees with is troubling are high levels of arsenic found in rice.

She recommends staying away from infant rice cereal, and offering oats or mixed grains to your baby instead.

"The fact of the matter is, you might buy fruits and vegetables that are already contaminated, that have pesticides or heavy metals. You can't guarantee that what you make is going to be any better than what you buy," Kramer said.

Overall, Kramer doesn't think parents should worry too much about the study.

"I think that they should continue to try to offer their children a balanced meal, including foods from all the food groups, a lot of fruits and vegetables. I think that in the long run, that's going to protect them, protect their health better than anything else," she said.

Some parents are taking their child's food safety into their own hands

Dinner time is always busy at Aubrie and Robert Novotny's house in Elyria.

Meals take a lot of planning, with four young children to feed.

"Our kids are right here with us cooking. So it's a great way to talk about making healthy choices, healthy portions," Novotny said.

They're paying special attention to what their nine-month-old baby Aria eats.

Her food is not coming from any jars or pouches.

"Just because they sell it on the shelf, doesn't make it safe. And unfortunately a lot of people don't know that," she said.

They bought well-known baby food brands for their first three kids, but Aubrie noticed something she didn't like.

"Even when I would cook here, if I make sweet potatoes it's nice and vibrant, but maybe the sweet potatoes on the shelf are not as vibrant for baby food," she said.

Her first concerns were artificial preservatives in the food.

But then she found out some dangerous chemicals could be lurking in those jars of fruit and vegetable purees.

So this time, they're making it all themselves.

"We found that it was easier, cheaper, quicker, healthier," Novotny said.

For Aubrie, making her own baby food is the best solution.

"So it's super easy and it's quick," she said.

The full-time working mom is a registered nurse.

She says it's not as hard to do as you think.

Just cut up some fruit and vegetables and they go right into a food processor.

Others need to be boiled or steamed first.

And the homemade baby food can be frozen for 30 days, using ice cube trays.

"If you just make it part of your weekend or weekday routine, it's really not that bad," Novotny said.

For Aubrie, it's peace of mind that she's doing her best for her baby.

"I know exactly what's going into her body," she said.

"I know that the vitamins and minerals in this banana are going to be exactly what it'd be like peeling it fresh."

What can you do if you're worried about chemicals in your baby's food?

Kramer recommends checking out the "dirty dozen" and the "clean 15."

Certain fruits and vegetables are more likely to retain pesticides and chemicals than others and you can buy organic for those.

FDA's response

Cleveland19 reached out to the FDA for a comment on the study, here is the agency's response:

"The FDA takes the presence of lead and other contaminants in foods very seriously and is working to limit their presence in the food supply to the extent feasible, especially in foods frequently consumed by children."

The agency pointed out some heavy metals like lead and arsenic occur naturally in our environment and can't be removed from food.

The FDA says it recently established a Toxic Elements Working Group to modernize the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition's activities when it comes to food and toxic element combinations.

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