Lead in Baby Food? Checking Key Facts
Last week, the US Food and Drug Administration released a document titled “Action Levels for Lead in Food Intended for Babies and Young Children: Draft Guidance for Industry,” which details proposed changes to regulations surrounding lead levels in certain food products intended for babies and children under 2 years old. These changes will set a much lower cap on acceptable lead levels in those foods products.
This document has been the subject of countless articles, news reports, and social media comments; sparking questions, conspiracy theories, and heightened emotions. We fact-checked some of the reactions and information being shared about the presence of lead in baby food.
“Lead is being put into baby food”
Initial social media reactions are peppered with the assumption that lead is being added into baby food, and that the proposed limits allow for lead to be introduced to a certain extent.
However lead is actually present in the ingredients that comprise baby food – from root vegetables to grains. Rather than being added intentionally into baby food, lead is a naturally occurring heavy metal that can be found in relatively low amounts in most of the food products we consume.
This is due to a variety of exposures to lead when the food is undergoing different industrial and agricultural processes – from soil, to water, to pesticides and machinery. Food products grown in soil – for instance carrots and sweet potatoes are commonly found to have higher levels of lead and other heavy metals present.
Lead is therefore not being intentionally added to baby food and reactions that suggest otherwise are misconceptions or misinformation.
“Reduced lead is not enough, zero lead should be permitted”
Other comments on social media call for “zero lead” in baby food – questioning why any lead at all is allowed in baby food. This has also been somewhat supported by articles citing experts who are calling for even more regulations and lower lead content.
However, it is near impossible to have zero lead in baby food – or any food, for that matter – as long as it is grown or produced on earth, which has seen heavy lead use over the past few centuries of human industrial development. While different food sources might have lesser lead contamination, currently technology and research is such that producing, processing, and testing zero-lead food products is not feasible. A study carried out in 2021 showed that homemade baby food was equally likely to contain heavy metals.
The FDA proposes to set the parts per billion of lead (ppb) – where 1 ppb means a 1:1,000,000,000 ratio of lead to volume of food – in fruits, non-root vegetables, mixtures and yoghurts to 10 ppb. They also propose 20 ppb as the limit for root vegetables and dry cereals.
These changes were partially set into motion by 2 congressional reports released in 2021 that found overly high lead levels in baby food and a lack of standardised testing and oversight across baby food manufacturers.
While some experts have called for more to be done, they also acknowledge that testing capabilities would have to be improved in order to do so. According to one researcher, “no amount of heavy metals such as lead can be considered safe, but less is certainly better.” It is also possible to find food products that have lead levels which do not exceed the “level of concern,” as testing by the organisation Consumer Reports showed in 2018.
“Lead in food causes low IQ in children”
This claim is accompanied by research studies which seem to prove it true. The most recent notable study by researchers at Duke University found links between lead poisoning and developmental delays, cognitive problems, and behaviour issues beyond IQ that might also impact the child later in life.
However, while consensus on the negative impacts of lead exists, food is not typically a key source of lead exposure. For instance, the subjects who took part in the Duke study were born in the 1970s in New Zealand where they were likely exposed to lead-based products such as paint and food packaging. Products such as makeup and toys made before that time were also found to contain lead.
Although lead can be toxic to humans, quantities of lead found typically found in food do not reach toxic levels, nor do they pose an immediate risk of lead poisoning. However, children are more susceptible to negative impacts from prolonged exposure to lead and other heavy metals, which is what underpins the FDA’s aims to reduce lead consumption where possible.
Therefore, it is not entirely accurate to draw a simple link between food containing lead to lowered IQ. However, research does reflect that lead exposure from different sources can contribute negatively to childhood development.
Outside of the United States, FDA’s proposed lead limit of 10 ppb for some baby foods would put regulations under the 20 ppb limit that the EU has set in place. International standards range from 0.01-3 parts per million (which converts to 10 ppb – 300 ppb) differing greatly depending on the food product and in what volume it is typically consumed. The FDA’s proposed changes would push manufacturers to maintain much lower lead levels than is currently allowed, reducing the amount of lead being consumed by children.
In Singapore, according to the latest updated food regulations under the Sale of Food Act, baby food has a limit of 0.2 ppm of lead, which converts to 200 ppb.
The Singapore Food Authority (SFA) has responded to previous questions about lead content in baby food in 2021, saying that it “adopts a science-based risk assessment and management approach that is consistent with international standards. It also has in place a food safety regime that involves testing of food products sold in Singapore to ensure they meet regulatory requirements, including whether the maximum limit for heavy metals is exceeded.”
It is important to note that the upper limits do not necessarily represent the actual lead content in baby food. Testing conducted in America showed that some manufacturers were able to keep their products under 10 ppb. Without specific testing results available, it is not possible to make statements about the lead content of baby food in Singapore.
There is a general consensus among researchers that working towards as low a lead content as possible is ideal. This can be done not only by specific food manufacturers, but through developing technologies to reduce lead content in agricultural environments and water sources as well. For instance, researchers from Nanyang Technological University have developed a filter for heavy metals such as lead in water made from plant waste. As the FDA has stated in the released document, if enhanced techniques to reduce lead are achieved, it will be possible to continually lower lead limit in baby food and food products more generally.
The overwhelming amount of information on impacts of lead and recent developments in reducing lead exposure from any source possible can induce heightened emotions and anxiety. Continued accurate awareness of current research, potential criticism and legislation can help us as consumers to make more informed food choices and to interpret news such as the FDA changes.