95% of U.S. baby foods contain toxic metals. Here's what parents should know.

"On the spectrum from worry to action, parents can choose to act," a new report states.

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  • A new investigation tested 168 baby food products for arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury, all of which are toxic metals that can damage brain development in infants.
  • Nearly all of the foods tested contained at least one of the metals, and 1 in 4 contained all four metals.
  • The authors of the report recommended five steps for finding alternative baby foods with less toxins.


Almost all of the baby food products tested in a new investigation contained traces of toxic heavy metals that can damage brain development in infants.

The investigation—which was commissioned by the nonprofit Healthy Babies Bright Futures (HBBF)—tested 168 baby foods manufactured in the U.S. for four toxic heavy metals: arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury. These metals, even in trace amounts, can "alter the developing brain and erode a child's IQ," according to the report. Of the foods tested, the results showed:

  • 95% contained lead
  • 73% contained arsenic
  • 75% contained cadmium
  • 32% contained mercury
  • 26% contained all four heavy metals

For at least a decade, health experts and advocacy groups have publicly raised concerns about the levels of toxic metals in baby food, and in 2017 the FDA established the Toxic Elements Working Group to reduce toxins in baby foods "to the greatest extent possible." Because of efforts like these, toxin levels in baby foods have dropped significantly in recent years. But it's not enough, according to the HBBF.

A call for "industry-wide change"

"Only a dramatically accelerated pace at FDA and the fruition of the new Baby Food Council's pursuit of industry-wide change will be enough to finally solve the problem," the report states.

"HBBF urges all baby food companies to establish a goal of no measurable amounts of cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic in baby and children's food, in recognition of the absence of a known safe level of exposure, and to achieve steady progress toward that goal."

But the baby food company Gerber noted that "many food safety and agricultural experts suggest that it is not feasible to achieve a 'zero' level of these elements -- even in homemade foods made from organic ingredients."

One problem is that these naturally occurring toxins will likely continue seeping into food, even if farmers and food manufacturers use the safest available practices. That's because it's a "legacy problem" caused largely by outdated pesticides that farmers had sprayed on the land for generations, as Charlotte Brody, a registered nurse and the national director of HBBF, told WebMD. Brody said one crop is particularly well suited for absorbing these dangerous toxins.

Rice

"What's driving the problem is rice," Brody said.

Health experts have known for years that rice contains high levels of arsenic, a toxin that's repeatedly been linked to decreases in IQ. In the new investigation, more than half of the rice cereals tested contained inorganic arsenic (the most toxic form of arsenic) at levels exceeding the FDA's proposed action level of 100 parts per billion (ppb). What's more, the report also shows that rice also contains relatively high levels of lead, cadmium and mercury.

Still, even though most health experts agree that no amount of these heavy metals is safe for infants, it's worth noting that toxin levels in baby foods have been falling for years. HBBF said the new findings shouldn't necessarily inspire worry, but rather informed action.

"Many factors can influence a child's IQ, from nutrition and genetics to environmental toxins," the report stated. "And many sources ratchet up children's exposures to heavy metals, from drinking water and old plastic toys to lead in dust from chipping paint and soil tracked into the house. Our findings raise concerns, but on the spectrum from worry to action, parents can choose to act. While no amount of heavy metals is considered safe, less is better."

​So, what can parents do?

HBBF

The report offered several guidelines for choosing safer baby foods:

  1. Avoid rice puffs and other snacks made with rice flour, which contain relatively high levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium. Consumer Reports recommends several baby foods typically low in metals: apples, applesauce (unsweetened), bananas, barley with diced vegetables, beans, cheese, grapes (cut lengthwise to avoid choking hazard), hard-boiled eggs, peaches, and yogurt.
  2. Avoid teething biscuits and rice rusks. Opt for other solutions for teething pain, like a frozen banana, a peeled and chilled cucumber, a clean, cold wet washcloth or spoon.
  3. Avoid infant rice cereal, which is the top source of arsenic in infant's diets. Non-rice and multi-grain varieties are usually safer options.
  4. Beware of apple, pear, grape and other fruit juices, which contain traces of lead and arsenic. These levels aren't as high as some other baby foods, but could be dangerous when babies drink fruit juice frequently.
  5. Carrots and sweet potatoes are healthy baby foods, but they contain higher levels of lead and cadmium compared to other fruits and vegetables. The HBBF choosing a variety of vegetables is the solution.
To read the full report, visit HBBF's website.

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Reactive oxygen species (ROS) accumulate in the gut of sleep-deprived fruit flies, one (left), seven (center) and ten (right) days without sleep.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
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  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

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