A study conducted by researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York and recently published in the journal Current Problems in Pediatric and Adolescent Health Care looked at gaps in the U.S. regulation of toxic metals in baby foods such as rice cereal, formula, purees, and puffs.
The researchers determined that the U.S. doesn’t have the kind of strict regulations for commercially produced baby foods that parents might expect. “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,” says the study’s lead author, Sarah J. Ventre, MD, clinical assistant professor in the department of pediatrics in the Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences at the university.
Gauri Desai, PhD, MPH, a clinical assistant professor in the department of epidemiology and environmental health at the university and who was part of the study’s research team, notes that there are few clear, evidence-based guidelines on the maximum tolerable limits of toxic metals in foods and little understanding of toxicant exposure or adverse health effects attributable to dietary exposure in the current regulatory guidelines. “Several foods consistently appear in the literature as potential sources of toxic element exposure,” she says. “Both homemade as well as store-bought foods are found to contain toxicants. Contaminated drinking and cooking water, including water used to prepare infant formula, could also be a major exposure source.”
The researchers found that, while there is an increase in the number of studies focused on the presence of contaminants in foods consumed by children, there is still a dearth of information on the topic. The researchers were also struck by the scarcity of clear guidance that takes into account the complexity of issues—that multiple toxic element exposures may be occurring, and that these stem from the same diets that provide health-promoting nutrients. “First, we do not have a comprehensive picture on the extent of exposure to toxic elements in young children,” Katarzyna Kordas, PhD, associate professor of epidemiology and environmental health at the university’s School of Public Health and Health Professions and senior author of the study, tells Food Quality & Safety. “Second, we do not know how exposure to toxic elements through the diet is affecting child health. We know that toxic elements are bad for children’s development and health, but healthy foods in themselves are good because they provide beneficial vitamins, minerals, bioactive components, etc. Will that counterbalance the effects of toxic elements? While that is the hope, there are no studies to allow us to say this for sure.”
She adds that clearer recommendations are needed for parents, but this is not an issue they can be expected to address alone. There is a need for broader, systemic protections supported by well-developed research studies to address the knowledge gaps. “More frequent inspection of manufactured foods [and] better labeling, combined with public messaging on what the labels mean, should be part of the strategy to limit exposures in young children.”