What you may have heard about heavy metals
Some foods contain heavy metals - specifically arsenic, cadmium, mercury, and lead. A few of the foods these are found in are rice, sweet potatoes, carrots, fish, and some juices. Excessive ingestion of heavy metals can lead to cognitive delays and other health problems. Babies, young children, and pregnant people are all advised to limit or avoid foods that are high in these substances.
What does this mean?
It is important to be aware of the types of foods and drinks that contain high levels of heavy metals. You can lower your risk of ingesting too many to these toxins by varying the types of foods you choose, or preparing these foods in different ways.
What are heavy metals?
Heavy metals are toxins found in foods and the environment that cause a variety of health problems. These can range from physical symptoms like tingling or burning extremities and digestive problems, to cognitive and neurological impairment. Everyone should avoid excessive exposure to heavy metals, but pregnant people and young children are especially vulnerable to the negative effects of these toxins.
Below are some of the most common heavy metals. Hover over each box to learn more about mercury, lead, arsenic, and cadmium.
Talk with your doctor or pediatrician for more information if you are concerned about heavy metal exposure.
Mercury is a heavy metal that causes significant developmental and neurological problems.
Larger fish have higher mercury contents. Pregnant people and young children should limit the amount of fish they eat, and it is important to pay attention to the type of fish you consume.
Fish to avoid include (but are not limited to) albacore tuna, swordfish, shark, tilefish, and orange roughy. If you like to fish, research the waterways and type of fish you are catching to make sure they are safe to eat.
Below are some resources for consuming fish safely.
Arsenic is a heavy metal found in foods like rice products, sweet potatoes, carrots, and some fruit juices. Long-term exposure is linked to skin disorders and some cancers. Short-term exposure to high levels of arsenic can cause digestive distress, skin rashes, and itching or burning in your hands and feet.
Recently, the news has been releasing stories about baby foods contaminated with arsenic. Arsenic is found in the soil these foods are grown in, either naturally, or by contamination.
Unfortunately, you cannot avoid arsenic exposure by buying organic or making the foods on your own at home. The best thing you can do is limit the amount of arsenic containing foods you eat and add more variety to your diet.
Some other tips include:
choose oatmeal instead of rice cereal
choose Basmati rice from CA, India, and Pakistan, and sushi rice from the US
cook rice in extra water (6-10 parts water to 1 part rice), and drain the water before serving
limit juice for children to 4 ounces per day
Below are some resources about arsenic
Lead is a heavy metal that causes neurological and physical problems. Lead contamination primarily comes from the environment. Some of the most common sources of lead are:
food grown in contaminated soil
old water pipes
paint in homes build before 1978
certain toys and jewelry
You can have your home, soil, and water tested if you suspect there may be lead in your environment. Since lead paint is a common source of exposure in older homes, keep an eye out for, and discourage children from chewing on window sills or door frames.
You can reduce the absorption of lead by offering foods rich in calcium, zinc, and iron. You should also wash your vegetables thoroughly to reduce toxin exposure. Click below for some resources.
Cadmium is a heavy metal that can cause damage to the kidneys.
Two studies (see below) found that some of the highest sources of cadmium include shellfish, mollusks (clams, etc), spinach, and certain breads and cereals.
These foods can still be part of a healthy diet, but you can reduce your risk of ingesting too much cadmium by varying what you eat to include foods that are low in cadmium.
Soy formula also contains this heavy metal. Ask your pediatrician about formula choices and safety.
Another source of cadmium exposure is cigarette smoke. We encourage smoking cessation to avoid this risk.
Why are there heavy metals in my food?!
Your food can contain heavy metals for a few reasons:
The heavy metal is found naturally in the soil or water
Fields may be polluted with pesticides, and contaminated fertilizer
Airborne contaminants (airfields can be a source of lead in the air)
Industrial operations (factories may use dangerous substances that are released into the soil or air)
What you've heard
Arsenic: The FDA recommends limiting the intake of foods that contain arsenic to 7 "points" per week. One 1/4 cup serving of baby rice cereal is 1.25 points. This means that babies should not eat more than 1/4 cup of rice cereal per day.
Limit grape, apple, and pear juices to 4 ounces per day for children ages 1-3, and 4-6 ounces per day for children 4-6 years old.
Foods low in heavy metals
... Not These
Foods high in heavy metals
Cocoa powder in chocolate could have cadmium or lead
Apple, grape, and pear juice may be high in arsenic. Limit intake to 4 ounces per day.
Avoid bigeye tuna, king mackerel, orange roughy, shark, and swordfish. These are high in mercury.
Protein powders can contain heavy metals. It is best to avoid these, especially for young children and pregnant people.
Water from a well or from older pipes could have lead and other heavy metals. Consider having your water supply tested.
Rice (and baby food made with rice) is high in arsenic.