Heavy metals and the diet of infants and young children: what you need to know

What are heavy metals?

‘Heavy metals’ is a term used to describe elements such as arsenic, lead, aluminium, cadmium and mercury. There are lots of different heavy metals, but because of their degree of toxicity and potential impact on health, the metals named above are often focused on.

Unlike the aforementioned heavy metals, which are non-essential to human life, some heavy metals are essential micronutrients vital for plant and human nutrition, for example, iron, copper, zinc, chromium and manganese – although, like most nutrients, care needs to be taken to ensure the correct level of intake.

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Where do heavy metals come from?

Heavy metals are components of the Earth’s crust and can be present in our foods naturally via air, soil and water. They typically reach our food through the soil and water in which they are grown and it may be impossible to avoid their presence. Foods can also become contaminated with heavy metals during preparation and storage e.g. from cooking pans, foils and storage containers. For young children, ingestion of soil and dust can also be an important contribution to some heavy metals such as lead.

Heavy metals may be more concentrated in certain foods. For example, fish can be a source of mercury, with some fish, particularly large predator fish, containing higher levels of mercury i.e. shark, swordfish and marlin. As such, their consumption should be limited in the general population to 1 portion per week and for pregnant women and infants and young children should be avoided altogether (nhs.uk). Lower mercury fish include those such as salmon, cod, whitefish and pollock.

See also Arsenic: what you need to know

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Should I be worried about my babies/child’s exposure to heavy metals?

As adults, we are likely to have some exposure to heavy metals in our food on a regular basis – this is hard to avoid, although it can be minimised.

For infants and young children, as they consume three to four times more food per kilogram body weight as compared to adults, extra precautions are taken by companies to further reduce any risk.

The UK has some of the strictest food safety controls in the world and sets maximum levels for a wide range of heavy metals in foods – particularly those foods more prone to exposure or absorption of certain heavy metals.

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Is there cause for concern?

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) regularly carries out surveys of adult and infant diets to assess likely exposure from contaminants, including heavy metals and would not allow unsafe product to remain on the market. Monitoring of these products in recent years by FSA and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has shown our members’ products to be within the safety limit set, known as the Tolerable Weekly Intakes. The Tolerable Weekly Intake is a conservative safety level that applies to all ages.

The FSA carry out surveys of the metals in commercial infant foods, infant formula as well as non-infant specific foods. Their last survey included a representative market share of infant formula and weaning foods (247 samples), which were purchased from different locations and retailers in the UK. All the samples tested were compliant with food safety legislation.

Levels in baby specific foods are typically much lower than those found in other comparable general foods. For example, for rice, limits for baby food are up to three times lower than for the equivalent general foods levels.

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What is being done to protect the food I provide for my baby?

It is important for parents to understand that the infant formula and baby food manufacturers represented by BSNA do not add any unnecessary ingredients into products.

Baby food and drinks in the UK are amongst some of the most regulated and safe products available on the market. Companies in the UK are very diligent when it comes to food safety, including the presence of heavy metals, and take their responsibility very seriously, often putting in place stricter rules than are required by legislation.

Manufacturers take every precaution to ensure that levels in products for infants and young children are kept to an absolute minimum and are as low as practically possible. Every step of the way is considered in terms of minimising risk. They will often be particularly stringent as to where fresh ingredients are grown or originate from, with raw material supplies carefully selected and rigorously checked to ensure the lowest contaminant levels possible, so they can be deemed ‘baby grade’, a term used to refer to ingredients which are produced at a chosen farm in suitable soil and under strict guidelines that ensure pesticides, pollution, nitrates and other contaminants are kept to a minimum. Regular monitoring and testing, ensuring the highest quality of ingredients and sourcing of, as well as storage and processing techniques will all be used. Suppliers premises are inspected, and manufacturers control all aspects of manufacture to ensure that their strict specifications are met.

BSNA works across industry and with regulators in the UK and Europe to further increase the shared understanding of heavy metals in foods, and to ensure the appropriate legislative and safety measures are in place. Companies continue to be very proactive in the continued reduction of heavy metals in foods - a focus of ongoing, long-term research.

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Considering the diet of infants and young children: how can I minimise my baby’s exposure to heavy metals?

Variety is key!

Any foods which grow in soil or water such as root vegetables or rice will inevitably be exposed to some degree of heavy metals. However, these types of foods are all an important contributor to a balanced and healthy diet, and a staple food source for many.

To reduce exposure as much as possible:

• Feed your young child a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of infant cereals including oatmeal, wheat, multigrain or rice and a variety of fruit and vegetables.

• Follow government guidelines for fish consumption.

• Use age-appropriate products which will have more closely considered the levels of heavy metals present.

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Reference:

1. FSA, Infant Metals Survey: A survey of metals and other elements in commercial infant foods, infant formula and non-infant specific foods. Conducted by: HallMark Veterinary Services Ltd. (October 2013-February 2014) Published 26 June 2018.