How Would You Know If Lead Is in Your Baby's Food?

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When it's time for babies to start on solid foods, there are several options: homemade purees, store-bought purees, baby-led feeding, and a combination of these options. Many families turn to pre-packaged baby food to feed their little ones at least some of the time. Although fresh foods can be more nutritious, this isn’t always the case. For instance, if fruits and veggies are picked at peak ripeness and then frozen or canned, this can actually preserve some nutrients that might be lost if the fresh produce sits on a truck in transit and in the store.

If you’re starting your baby with purees, it’s not always possible to make fresh baby food every time your baby is hungry. Families rely on baby food jars, cans, or pouches for feeding on-the-go, for convenience and/or because it's what fits in their family budget.

Commercial baby foods can be a healthful option, with many offering organic versions as well as options that don’t contain anything but the same foods you might cook at home. The blends of fruits and vegetables and even meats can help your growing baby meet nutrient needs.

Many families rely on baby food to feed their baby and trust that it is a healthy option. This is why it is especially concerning that research from the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) found that many baby foods on the market contain levels of lead that are unsafe for babies.

What the Report Found

The EDF's 2017 report, which was based on the Food and Drug Administration's Total Diet Study (TD) data, revealed some shocking findings about lead in children's food. By analyzing 11 years of data and 2,164 baby food samples, EDF found that for many foods lead levels had risen after having been on the decline in the previous year. Specifically:

  • Lead was found in 20 percent of baby food samples, as compared to lower levels (14 percent) found in other types of food.
  • Eight types of baby foods, in particular, had lead in more than 40 percent of samples.
  • Baby food containing apple and grape juices and carrots had more lead than regular versions.
  • Grape juice for babies had the highest amounts of lead among the other juices analyzed.
  • The top offenders for baby food with lead were root vegetables of sweet potatoes and carrots, as well as cookies, including arrowroot cookies and teething biscuits.
  • Rice cereal also had high levels of lead.

How Lead Can Affect Child Development

Separate from the EDF's study, the EPA has reported that more than 1 million children are consuming lead levels that exceed the FDA's limit of safe lead consumption of 6 micrograms per day. While the lead levels found in baby food in the EDF report did not exceed the FDA limit, both the EDF and EPA note that there is really no known safe level of lead in the blood, so any consumption by children is considered to be dangerous. Lead consumption is linked to behavioral problems and lower IQs in children because of the damage it inflicts on the developing brain.

This is a danger to children and can lead to expensive medical conditions as well. For example, they explained that eliminating lead in food would not only lead to children having more healthy lives but would also save society billions of dollars every year in earnings and medical expenses that result from the effects of lead poisoning.

Lead poisoning can have many early signs and symptoms, such as irritability, headache, stomachache, being jittery, difficulty concentrating, and a poor appetite. Once damage from lead has occurred, it can not be treated or reversed.

What You Can Do to Lower Your Child's Risk of Lead Exposure

If you're concerned about the presence of lead in baby food, consider making your baby's food at home and avoiding canned baby food, or trying baby-led feeding (in which baby eats developmentally appropriate and safe versions of the family's food). Making a large batch of baby food at once and freezing it in an ice cube tray or special baby food containers can help cut down on food preparation time.

Fruit juice should be avoided completely in the first year of life, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). It's not nutritionally necessary for most kids, regardless of age, as they can get more nutritional benefit from eating fresh fruit.

You should also make sure that your child has all of his or her well-child visits on time to screen for any possible delays that could be caused by lead toxicity. Most pediatricians will also do a blood level of lead at their 1-year check-up, so be sure to talk to your doctor about what the results of that test show. If your child's lead levels are too high, you can make a plan for reducing their exposure to lead.

A Word From Verywell

Research into baby food has revealed that many types on the market contain levels of lead that could be dangerous for children to consume. Baby foods that contain sweet potatoes, carrots, or apple and grape juices tend to have the highest levels of lead. If you can, consider making fresh baby food at home to reduce your child's exposure to lead and talk to your pediatrician about how to limit lead consumption.

Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  • Environmental Defense Fund. (2017). Lead in food: A hidden health threat. Retrieved from 

By Chaunie Brusie, RN
Chaunie Brusie is a registered nurse with experience in long-term, critical care, and obstetrical and pediatric nursing.