Reality check: 80% of infant formulas contain arsenic – should parents be concerned?

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WATCH: The Clean Label Project found chemicals in baby foods and formulas. Here's what experts have to say – Oct 26, 2017

About one-third of baby food products tested in a new study were found to have several potentially harmful chemical elements including arsenic, lead, cadmium and acrylamide.

This was found after the Clean Label Project, a non-profit organization that stands for consumer transparency, researched 530 different snacks, cereals, baby formulas and drinks, all of which had been purchased in the last five months.

READ MORE: More lead found in baby foods than in regular food: study

According to the research, 65 per cent of the tested products came back positive for arsenic, while 58 per cent had cadmium, 36 per cent lead and 10 per cent acrylamide.

Of the baby formulas tested, however, 80 per cent contained arsenic – a chemical element the World Health Organization has tied to many health issues like diabetes and cancer.

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The levels of each chemical found were different, the study says, but some samples came back with alarming results of up to 600 parts of arsenic per billion.

As well, 70 per cent of baby foods were found to have 70 per cent more acrylamide than a French fry, a chemical element which has been linked to cancers of the oral cavity, kidney, breast and ovary, among others, the National Cancer Institute says.

Some of the worst baby food retail offenders, according to the study, include Plum Organics, Sprout and Enfamil.

However, it’s important to take the results of the study lightly, said Michael Rogers, associate professor and Canadian Research Chair in food nanotechnology.

For Rogers, it’s tough to conclude that the results are alarming if there is no raw data available.

It’s also important to note, he says, that arsenic, lead and cadmium usually pose no harm as they are present in many of the foods we eat every day.

“Arsenic, lead and cadmium are naturally-occurring in the environment so it’s not surprising that their presence is detected in infant formulas,” Rogers says. “Without knowing the levels present in the samples, it’s hard to know if there’s a high risk or no risk at all.”

Another issue for Rogers is the study’s inability to differentiate which type of arsenic researchers found present in the food – organic or inorganic. If it was inorganic, then it would be of greater concern.

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“[Inorganic arsenic] is what we often associate with carcinogenic properties,” Rogers says. “Neither are great for you, but the thing you have to remember is that all elements – just like magnesium, manganese and potassium – they all have upper levels where they become toxic. So even water and sugar do. So just the presence of these isn’t an indicator of their safety and if there’s a real risk, because our body needs a small amount of cadmium.”

READ MORE: Baby-led weaning 101: Why some experts advocate solid food at 6 months

Another concern is the presence of acrylamide, Rogers says.

Acrylamide, Rogers explains, is the browning reaction in most foods. For example, coffee has a lot of acrylamide in it, as well as potato chips and other potato-based products.

“I’m not surprised they’re [present] but it’s the one that is industrially relevant,” he says. “The acrylamide is a byproduct of thermal processing so when you have reducing sugars – in the case of baby formula, it would be lactose – that will react with proteins under high heat.”

He adds, “So the fact that it’s there isn’t surprising, but acrylamide is a byproduct of thermal processing (so of the spray-drying process with infant formulas) and that’s what you definitely don’t want 10 per cent of your infant formulas to contain acrylamide… That’s the one out of this little page here that I would be concerned about as a parent.”

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The Canadian Food Inspection Agency also took a look at the presence of chemical elements found in baby food products in 2012-2013. While they found the presence of arsenic, lead, mercury and cadmium, the conclusion was that infant formulas had very low frequencies of such chemicals.

For a full list of products identified by the Clean Label Project, click here.

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