Baby food is not only a boon for exhausted parents of infants across the modern world but also doubles up as an aid to play on their guilt for considering packaged food at all. And this year has not brought much to dispel the latter sentiment. But first, a disclaimer. Baby food is not yet a category covered by our platform and the data included is derived from our wider data sets.
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Toxic baby food
Earlier this month saw some disturbing news emerging from the US. A congressional investigation revealed that some of the top baby food brands had extremely high levels of toxic heavy metals in products like rice cereals, purees, puffs, and juices. These metals, including arsenic, cadmium, lead, and mercury, are particularly harmful as they can impact a baby’s neurological development. They have also been linked to cancer and chronic disease.
This is unfortunately not the first instance of issues with baby food. Most recently, in 2019, consumer watchdog Healthy Babies Bright Futures tested 168 foods for babies and toddlers and found that 95% had toxic heavy metals, while a quarter of them had all four of the aforementioned heavy metals.
One of the problems here is that the US FDA has not set upper limits for heavy metals for most infant foods. Infant rice cereal is one of the few foods that does have a standard: 100 parts per billion (ppb) of inorganic arsenic. But experts have pointed out that is very high considering the standard for bottled water is just 10 ppb.
There is also the more complex issue of these heavy metals being naturally present in the environment and the food we eat. Rice, for example, is the leading source of inorganic arsenic because it absorbs the metal from the soil and water it is grown in.
Another concern is that while ingredients may be tested individually and have permissible limits, the final product may have higher amounts of heavy metals when the ingredients are combined.
The negative sentiment towards packaged baby food had for a long time been higher than the positive sentiment, though this finally saw a change last year. Improved product offerings in terms of desirable claims and reassurances, as well as their convenience, appealed to parents. There has been a steady increase in consumer acceptance of the positives of baby food over the last few years.
Consumer sentiment analysis towards baby food, US
The news of the high levels of heavy metals is very likely going to result in a serious blow to the US baby food segment as a whole in terms of eroded trust. In fact, lawsuits have already been filed against these companies.
The case for increased transparency in baby food
While baby food brands categorically refute these allegations, the damage has already been done. The pandemic has already brought to the forefront growing demands for food safety and transparency across the supply chain. Over the last decade, transparency in food and drink has become an important feature, as consumers increasingly want to know about the provenance of what they eat.
Consumer interest in food transparency, US
This is going to be especially true of the food that consumers give their babies. Since 2016, our data shows that consumer interest in organic and clean label baby food has more than quadrupled. This is driven by parents wanting to ensure that the baby food they buy is not full of all manner of additives. Unfortunately, these claims do not mean that the food will be devoid of heavy metals.
This appears to be a recurring problem for the baby food category, and it is definitely time for regulators to look at adding new parameters for safety that include on-pack assurances of no heavy metals. In fact, don’t be surprised if something like this is instituted as a matter of course in the coming years.
Just this month, Canadian baby food brand Cerebelly received The Clean Label Project Purity Award, which tests for over 400 contaminants, including heavy metals whose content should be less than 4ppb. This is an independent certification, but it offers a basis for both regulators and manufacturers to provide reassurance to parents that their food is safe for babies. There may also be scope for brands to take the transparency a few steps forward and highlight where exactly the ingredients are sourced from to reduce the chance of contamination.
A price to pay
Such additional certification, unfortunately, comes at an extra cost to the company and a potentially hefty price tag for the consumer. While some parents may choose to switch to homemade food, there may be plenty willing to pay for their child’s safety and the convenience of ready-made food.
This may also be an opportunity for innovation in the baby food space that actively works at reducing heavy metal contamination or innovation in technology that can aid detection and reduction in the medium to long term.
Innovation here could be as simple as avoiding ingredients that tend to absorb high amounts of heavy metals, like rice, carrots, and sweet potatoes, and instead using alternative cereals and vegetables that are easy for young children to digest. This has the added benefit of exposing children to a wider range of foods, potentially making them less fussy eaters as well as reducing the risk of potential allergies. Such innovation could also work out as more affordable options.
It is vital to act quickly to repair this breach of trust towards the most vulnerable of consumers.
While you ponder over the technologies that might help with tackling the issue of heavy metals in baby food, do check out our blog on the new uses of fermentation technologies in the alt protein space, written by my colleagues Rashmi and Abhijitha. Who knows – this might provide the answer to tackling this kind of contamination.
Ranjana works as the Lead Research Analyst for Spoonshot. Her past experience includes working with a major global market research company, specializing in food and drink trends. She has also worked with major publications as a writer and editor.