What's lurking behind the label in your child's food? A new report found toxins in hundreds of products.
Hundreds of different types of food were sampled, from formula and jarred baby food to snacks for toddlers. The researchers said they weren't just surprised by the levels of contaminants, but also by how many products tested positive.
Many manufacturers of baby food don't test for heavy metals, but a non-profit out of Colorado wanted to know what's hiding behind the labels of the food children are eating.
To help parents make better choices, Ellipse Analytics, an accredited lab in Denver, teamed up with the non-profit Clean Label Project and tested for toxins in 700 products. Ranging from baby to early toddler food.
"There's a lack of knowledge when it comes to what's actually in these products," said Sean Callan, Ellipse's director of operations and quality.
Some of the results shocked Callan, like finding lead in infant formula. Thirty-five percent of the formula samples tested positive for some level of lead.
"That's an alarming level, particularly when we consider the effect that lead has on developing brains," Callan commented.
When it comes to formula Similac and Enfamil had products that tested in the top five for purity. But the lab also ranked one Enfamil formula in the bottom five.
Callan said the lab also found a chemical linked to cancer and brain damage in some of the food samples. "It's what you call a cumulative toxin." The levels of acrylamide varied depending on the food.
"Is a tiny amount of it going to hurt you right now? No. But a tiny amount of it over and over and over again, that's a different story," Callan said.
The lab screened for 130 different environmental contaminants. From heavy metals and pesticides to antibiotics.
Jaclyn Bowen, executive director of Clean Label Project, said "science doesn't lie." The non-profit is focused on health and transparency when it comes to product labels. Bowen said brands usually only test for traditional food contaminants: "Things like E. coli, salmonella, listeria."
Bowen believes that testing should be more extensive. She hopes what the lab discovered in baby food results in a call to action.
"A wake up call for brands that they need to be much more diligent," Bowen said.
Laura Temke, a Milwaukee-area mother who works in the food safety industry, was shocked by some of the test results, especially those measured in organic products.
"What a label tells you is definitely questionable sometimes," Temke said.
On average, the organic samples they tested showed twice as much arsenic as conventional baby food.
"It's crazy actually. You think, 'I'm buying organic. It's free from chemicals and impurities and things,'" Temke said.
The toxic substance also showed up in a popular kid's snack that Temke's 19-month-old son loves.
Test results show some had higher levels of arsenic than others, as well as other chemicals such as Bisphenol A, or BPA. One of the brands Temke buys makes a "BPA free" claim, but the lab found the industrial chemical in several of the Happy Family products.
In all, Clean Label Project tested products from around 80 brands. Each one has a star-rating based on overall levels of contaminants and nutritional value. One is below average, five is above.
In general, the non-profit found global brands that make up more than 60 percent of the baby food market, including Happy Family and Plum Organics, scored at or below average for purity compared to other brands, like Earth's Best and Beech-Nut, which were rated above average.
Temke hopes manufacturers take this information and make an effort to do better.
"They test for other things, why aren't they testing for things like heavy metals?" Temke asked.
She plans to use some of the test results to make sure what she's feeding her kids is safe.
Response from Happy Family:
We are surprised by the alleged findings. We specifically source the packaging used for our products because it is made without the use of phalates and bisphenols including bisphenol-A. We hold ourselves to a high standard and would earnestly investigate any findings that are contrary to this. We wonder whether the testing method utilized accounts for the fact that contaminant residue caused by other products or through the environment in which all products travel and are stored may provide a false positive. As a company run by parents dedicated to the health and wellness of our babies, the safety of our children is, and always has been, our top priority and we maintain our commitment to ensure that the packaging we use is not made with BPA.
Response from Plum Organics:
As an organic brand dedicated to serving children, baby’s well-being is our top priority. Plum’s mission has always been dedicated to nourishing little ones with the very best food from the very first bite. All of Plum’s products meet government standards and regulations. Our intent is to go beyond what’s required. We are committed to minimizing environmental and industrial contaminants within our products. Over the last year, our team began creating new, more robust guidelines for contaminants in our ingredients. These programs take time to implement, but this is a priority for our brand.
In general, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not comment on specific studies, but evaluates them as part of the body of evidence to further its understanding. The FDA’s goal is to protect human health by ensuring that consumer exposure to contaminants is limited to the greatest extent feasible.
It is important for consumers to understand that some contaminants, such as heavy metals like lead or arsenic, are in the environment and cannot simply be removed from food. Through the Total Diet Study, the FDA tests for approximately 800 contaminants and nutrients in the diet of the average U.S. consumer.
The FDA works with industry to limit the amount of contaminants in food to the greatest extent feasible, especially in foods frequently consumed by children.
The FDA has established levels for several contaminants that should not be exceeded for a variety of foods.
The FDA considers, on a case-by-case basis, whether to take enforcement action when we find foods that would be considered contaminated.
The FDA recently established a Toxic Elements Working Group whose mission in part is to develop a strategy for prioritizing and modernizing the FDA Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition’s activities with respect to food/toxic element combinations using a risk-based approach.