Here’s what foods to worry about and how to make your own baby food
On February 4, 2021, the House Subcommittee on Economic and Consumer Policy of the Committee on Oversight and Reform issued a report, “Baby Foods are Tainted with Dangerous Levels of Arsenic, Lead, Cadmium, and Mercury.”
According to the report, the FDA received a “secret slide presentation” from Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) on August 1, 2020, which showed increased risks of toxic heavy metals in baby foods. Because of this information, on November 6, 2020, the subcommittee requested internal documents and test results from seven of the largest manufacturers of organic and non-organic baby food in the US.
Four of the companies responded. Nurture, Beech-Nut, Hain and Gerber produced their internal testing policies, test results for ingredients and/or finished products as well as documentation about what the companies did when internal testing limits were exceeded.
Walmart (Parent’s Choice), Campbell (Plum Organics), and Sprout Organic Foods refused to cooperate with the subcommittee’s investigation, and as a result, the subcommittee voiced “grave concerns” about their baby food products.
High levels of toxic heavy metals in commercial baby foods
According to the subcommittee report, documentation showed that company standards permit dangerously high levels of toxic heavy metals and that manufacturers have often sold foods that exceeded those levels. The greatest risk is for babies under two. Here are the subcommittee’s findings:
According to internal company documents and test results obtained by the Subcommittee, commercial baby foods are tainted with significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. Exposure to toxic heavy metals causes permanent decreases in IQ, diminished future economic productivity, and increased risk of future criminal and antisocial behavior in children. Toxic heavy metals endanger infant neurological development and long-term brain function.
These are the subcommittee’s recommendations:
- Mandatory testing — Baby food manufacturers should be required by FDA to test their finished products for toxic heavy metals, not just their ingredients
- Labeling — Manufacturers should by required by FDA to report levels of toxic heavy metals on food labels
- Voluntary phase-out of toxic ingredients — Manufacturers should voluntarily find substitutes for ingredients that are high in toxic heavy metals, or phase out products that have high amounts of ingredients that frequently test high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice
- FDA standards — FDA should set maximum levels of toxic heavy metals permitted in baby foods. One level for each metal should apply across all baby foods. And the level should be set to protect babies against the neurological effects of toxic heavy metals
- Parental vigilance — Parents should avoid baby foods that contain ingredients testing high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice products. Instituting recommendations one through four will give parents the information they need to make informed decisions to protect their babies.
What can parents do?
In response to this report, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) also recommends that parents avoid baby foods with ingredients high in toxic heavy metals, such as rice products, and look for alternatives to rice-based processed foods.
Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF), an alliance of non-profit organizations, scientists, and donors that designs and implements outcomes-based programs to measurably reduce babies’ exposures to neurotoxic chemicals in the first 1,000 days of development, issued a report on their own national investigation, “What’s in my baby food?” According to the HBBF report, these are the foods that pose the greatest risk (in order):
- Rice dishes, including with beans & veggie
- Milk, whole
- Rice, white and brown
- Apple juice
- Infant formula
- Fruit juice blend (100% juice)
- Infant rice cereal
- Grape juice
- Cheerios and other oat ring cereals
- Sweet potato (baby food)
- Soft cereal bars and oatmeal cookies
- Macaroni and cheese
- Puffs and teething biscuits
- Bottled drinking water
- Fruit yogurt
HBBF suggests that replacing those foods that pose the greatest risk to babies will have the most impact.
- Replace rice puffs or rice crackers with rice-free snacks
- Use frozen bananas or chilled cucumbers [or teething beads] instead of teething biscuits.
- Use multi-grain cereal or oatmeal in place of rice cereal.
- Give your baby tap water instead of fruit juice. [If you’re concerned about your water, you can have it tested. You can also filter it through an inexpensive pitcher filter.]
- Give your baby a variety of fruits and vegetables rather than just carrots and sweet potatoes.
Make your own baby food
HBBF cautions that choosing organic foods or making homemade purees does not eliminate the risk of heavy metals in soil and water because organic foods are not tested for heavy metals.
However, organic foods will contain lower levels, or no levels, of pesticides and be free of added hormones or genetically modified ingredients. And, washing or peeling your organic root vegetables may decrease heavy metals. Food you grow yourself, or get from a local organic source, will pose less risk because you can test your soil and water for heavy metals and ask your local farm for its test results.
It’s easy to make your own baby food because you can just mash or puree foods you are already making for the rest of the family. It also saves money and gives you a sense of control over your child’s food. Don’t introduce solid food, however, until your child shows a readiness for it — usually sometime between six months and a year old.
Contaminated baby food is another form of environmental racism because organic food, as well as fresh fruits and vegetables, are out of reach for many low-income families, especially those who live in food deserts. WIC, for example, provides more jarred baby food than it does fruits and vegetables, so making your own baby food is challenging for WIC recipients. The good news is that the WIC Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program provides coupons to WIC participants that can be used like cash to purchase fresh fruit and vegetables at local participating farmers’ markets
Keep foods simple
Keep foods simple for at least the first few months, to enable you to detect any food sensitivities your baby may have. Introduce each new food alone, rather than in combination with other foods. Feed each new food for three to five days, just a spoonful at a time, and watch for any reaction. Allergic reactions might include:
- a rash around the mouth or bottom
- red eyes
- ear infections
A mild reaction means you should hold off on serving that food for a few months. A severe reaction should be discussed with your health practitioner.
Start with foods that are low in protein and easy to assimilate, such as:
- Fruit. Fruits are a good first choice because most babies will be attracted to their sweetness. Bananas are perfect — you can mash them up for a child under nine months, and cut them into small pieces for an older child. Apples and pears can be served stewed and pureed, or grated in small pieces. Peaches and apricots can be mashed or diced. Bits of melon and blueberries make good finger food. Wait until your child is over a year old to serve citrus fruits, as they can be allergenic. Dried fruits such as raisins should be avoided, since they can cause choking and can get stuck between the teeth and cause cavities.
- Vegetables. After your baby has become accustomed to a few fruits, try serving vegetables. Start out with the sweeter, orange varieties: sweet potato, carrots, and winter squash, cooked and mashed. Potatoes, peas, and green beans can be served mashed or diced. Avocado is one vegetable you can serve raw. Wait until your baby is a year before offering corn and tomatoes, as they can be allergenic.
- Grains. Whole grain cereals contain protein, fat, fiber, vitamins, and essential minerals, as well as a hearty flavor and aroma. After your baby is tolerating fruits and vegetables well, you can introduce whole grain cereals, starting with a single grain at a time, and later mixing grains. Oatmeal, barley, quinoa, and millet are good grains to start with. Limit wheat; it is a common allergen.
- Nuts and Legumes. After a year, when solid food begins to make up more of your child’s diet, good sources of protein include tofu, beans such as chickpeas and pinto beans, legumes such as split peas, hummus (chickpea and garlic paste), and seed and nut butters such as tahini (sesame seed butter), and almond butter. Peanuts are one of the most allergenic foods, but current wisdom is conficted. Some suggest not giving peanut butter to children before two or three and others suggest introducing it early, between four and six months, to decrease the risk of developing an allergy. Be guided by your own particular family’s sensitivities.
- Chicken, Fish and Eggs. Animal proteins are the most difficult foods to digest. They are probably not necessary, if at all, until a child is walking and making more physical demands on himself. If you do serve meats or fish, they should be boiled or cooked until very soft, then chopped or flaked finely. Because egg whites can be an allergen, do not give them to your baby until he is over one year old.
- Dairy Products. Cow’s milk, which is highly allergenic, should never be given to a child under a year old, as it is high in protein and minerals, which can put a strain on an infant’s immature kidneys. Yogurt can be fed to infants, however, as it contains bacteria that make it easier to digest.
How to prepare
Foods should be mashed with a fork or put through an inexpensive food mill until still chunky. A baby who is six months or older, however, should not need to have her food pureed or liquefied. Once your baby is able to pick up small objects between her thumb and forefinger, give her finger foods; just be sure the pieces of food are soft enough and small enough that they will not present a choking hazard. (see “Foods Babies Can Choke On” below). And do not ever leave your baby alone while she is eating, in case she does choke or gag.
Food babies can choke on
- Apple chunks or apple slices
- Dry cereal
- Hard candies or cookies
- Hot dogs or Tofu dogs
- Meat chunks
- Potato Chips
- Raw Carrot Sticks
- Rice Cakes
- Whole Corn Kernels
- Whole Nuts
- Whole Berries
Common allergenic foods
Wait until your baby is at least a year old — two to three years old if allergies run in your family — before introducing these foods:
- Egg Whites
- Nuts, especially Peanuts
DIY baby food ideas
Serving homemade food is simply a matter of taking a little of the fresh food you are eating yourself, and pureeing it for your baby. Here are some ideas to get you started:
- Keep a baby food grinder at the table and grind or mash foods from your plate that are appropriate for your baby.
- Steam fresh fruits and vegetables (no need to add more salt or sweeteners) and puree to the desired texture in a food processor or blender.
- Freeze individual portions of baby food in ice cube trays or recycled small jars and defrost one serving at a time.
- Make your own whole-grain baby cereal by toasting a grain like millet or quinoa in the oven or in a skillet. Grind the grains in a food processor, or coffee grinder reserved for that use, immediately before serving them (grains begin to lose nutritional value within a day or two of grinding). To make cereal, simmer a few spoonfuls of ground grains in a half-cup of water. For older children, dress the cereal up with sliced fruit, yogurt, or maple syrup.
- Make polenta for the family, topped with tomato sauce and cheese, and serve the baby’s plain.
- Oven-roast zucchini, potatoes, yams, and carrots with a little olive oil until soft.
- Mash sweet potatoes mixed with quinoa — a soft grain — for a nutrition-packed meal for a baby or toddler.
- When you are cooking stews, roasts, or soups for the family, reserve some vegetables such as carrots, potatoes, lentils, or parsnips to puree for the baby. For an older baby, you can serve small pieces of the vegetables in the stew or soup.
Trust your baby’ appetite and let your child decide how much to eat, or even whether to eat at all. At first, she may just explore food, and play with it, but gradually she will start eating more. Dont pressure or coerce her to open her mouth, or eat more. Just like yours, your baby’s appetite vaires from day to day. For more on baby led eating, see Katja Leccisi’s website and book.
Two affiliate links to hard-to-find items are included in this article.
About Peggy O’Mara. I am an independent journalist who was the editor and publisher of Mothering magazine for over 30 years. My books include Having a Baby Naturally, Natural Family Living, The Way Back Home and A Quiet Place. I have conducted workshops at Omega Institute, Esalen, La Leche League, Hollyhock and Bioneers. I am the mother of four and grandmother of three. Sign up for my free newsletter with my latest posts on parenting, social justice, and healthy living.