Baby food and autism — do the lawsuits and internet claims have merit?

For Facebook users, “targeted ads” are a way of life. I ignore them until I saw one from lawyers who were suing baby food manufacturers for causing autism. I guess that they weren’t getting anywhere with the trope that vaccines cause autism (they absolutely don’t), although the quack Del Bigtree continues to push the myth.

As I did for vaccines, I’m going to show you that baby food may or may not be linked to autism. There seem to be some problematic issues with baby food manufacturing, but that does not show a direct link to autism.

Oh yeah, one basic principle you need to understand — lawyers and judges do NOT establish science.

The Facebook ad that targeted me.

What is this lawsuit all about?

This is the first lawsuit of its kind that has presented early arguments to a judge that heavy metals in baby food may harm a child’s developing brain, leading to autism. Raise your hand if you’ve heard this type of argument before.

The lawsuit is going after major baby food manufacturers like Gerber and Beech-Nut. The lawyers are claiming that several brands of very popular baby foods contain alarmingly high levels of heavy metals such as mercury, arsenic, lead, and cadmium. They claim that these heavy metals are neurotoxic (well, they are at certain levels) and that they lead to autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders.

The problem that the baby food manufacturers are going to have to deal with is that independent analyses show that there are heavy metals in baby food. Below are the levels of various heavy metals taken directly from a congressional investigation.

Arsenic

  • Nurture (HappyBABY) sold baby foods after tests showed they contained as much as 180 parts per billion (ppb) of inorganic arsenic. Over 25% of the products Nurture tested before sale contained over 100 ppb of inorganic arsenic. Nurture’s testing shows that the typical baby food product it sold contained 60 ppb of inorganic arsenic.
  • Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) sold finished baby food products containing as much as 129 ppb of inorganic arsenic. Hain typically only tested its ingredients, not finished products. Documents show that Hain used ingredients testing as high as 309 ppb arsenic.
  • Beech-Nut used ingredients after they tested as high as 913.4 ppb arsenic. Beech-Nut routinely used high-arsenic additives that tested over 300 ppb arsenic to address product characteristics such as “crumb softness.”
  • Gerber used high-arsenic ingredients, using 67 batches of rice flour that had tested over 90 ppb inorganic arsenic.

Lead

  • Nurture (HappyBABY) sold finished baby food products that tested as high as 641 ppb lead. Almost 20% of the finished baby food products that Nurture tested contained over 10 ppb lead.
  • Beech-Nut used ingredients containing as much as 886.9 ppb lead. It used many ingredients with high lead content, including 483 that contained over 5 ppb lead, 89 that contained over 15 ppb lead, and 57 that contained over 20 ppb lead.
  • Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) used ingredients containing as much as 352 ppb lead. Hain used many ingredients with high lead content, including 88 that tested over 20 ppb lead and six that tested over 200 ppb lead. Gerber used ingredients that tested as high as 48 ppb lead and used many ingredients containing over 20 ppb lead.

Cadmium

  • Beech-Nut used 105 ingredients that tested over 20 ppb cadmium. Some tested much higher, up to 344.55 ppb cadmium.
  • Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) used 102 ingredients in its baby food that tested over 20 ppb cadmium. Some tested much higher, up to 260 ppb cadmium.
  • Sixty-five percent of Nurture (HappyBABY) finished baby food products
  • contained more than 5 ppb cadmium.
  • Seventy-five percent of Gerber’s carrots contained cadmium over 5 ppb, with some containing up to 87 ppb cadmium.

Mercury

  • Nurture (HappyBABY) sold finished baby food products containing as much as 10 ppb mercury.
  • Beech-Nut and Hain (Earth’s Best Organic) do not even test for mercury in baby food.
  • Gerber rarely tests for mercury in its baby foods.

Let me be clear — these manufacturers are not adding these heavy metals to their food. Unfortunately, most of these heavy metals are common in the environment and can contaminate the sources of the food themselves. And no, organic food will not have an advantage in avoiding these contaminants, unless they were able to find soil somewhere that had no heavy metal contaminants.

Furthermore, it’s very hard to remove these contaminants from food sources. Even if you were to choose organic, non-GMO food products to make your own baby food, you’re probably going to have similarly high levels of heavy metals. It’s just a fact of being on this planet, not a condemnation of your practices or the practices of the baby food manufacturers.

person mixing cereal milk and strawberry jam on white ceramic bowl
Photo by Daria Shevtsova on Pexels.com

The science of baby food and autism

OK, let’s start with the official “acceptable” levels of heavy metals in food that are published by regulators in the USA (the location of the vast majority of lawsuits:

  • arsenic — 10 ppb is a generally accepted level in food. As you will notice, some of the baby foods far exceed that level.
  • lead — the FDA sets a level of 3 µg per day for children. One baby food had over 800 ppb or 0.8 µg/g of food. A typical 100 g jar of food would include nearly 8 µg of lead, far above the FDA level.
  • cadmium — the acceptable level in food is around 25 μg/kg body weight. So a 10 kg baby should be safe with around 250 µg of cadmium per day, and the levels of the metal in baby food, at its highest, is 340 ppb which roughly converts to 0.34 µg of cadmium per 1 g of food. A jar of baby food contains around 100 g of food so 340 ppb is roughly equivalent to 340 µg of cadmium per serving of food. That’s above the safe level, and that’s just one meal a day. Three meals a day (or more) will substantially exceed the safe level.
  • mercury — the acceptable level of mercury in food for children is 3 µg per day. In this case, the one food tested had 10 ppb which translates to about 0.01 µg per g of food. So, one jar could have up to 1 µg of mercury, which throughout a few meals could exceed the daily limit.

These levels are concerning. But do these heavy metals lead to autism?

We don’t know what causes autism, but the leading hypothesis is genetics plus some environmental trigger. Could heavy metals in baby food be the trigger that causes autism?

A recent systematic review (considered the pinnacle of the hierarchy of biomedical research) examined heavy metals and autism. However, it was based on a bunch of case-control studies, which may show correlation but do not establish causation. One of the studies included in their review stated clearly that:

The major problem with case-control studies is the temporal relationship between exposure and outcome. It is possible, for example, that older children with ASD may exhibit more mouthing behavior than healthy controls, leading to increased levels of mercury (and other pollutants) in their biological tissues.

In other words, despite the desire to believe that these heavy metals are linked to autism, there is no robust, repeated evidence that supports that claim.

a boy in yellow shirt
Photo by Anna Shvets on Pexels.com

So what does the Skeptical Raptor think?

I started this post by immediately thinking that it’s just a bunch of greedy lawyers trying to make a buck. I even accused anti-vaxxers of being involved somehow. Then I read the Congressional study of heavy metals in baby food, and I was appalled.

Now I don’t know if this study from Congress follows rigorous science, like only testing one bottle of baby food or cherry-picking the highest numbers to make their case. But these numbers come straight from the manufacturers, which means they must not think it’s a big deal.

There is no overwhelming “gotcha” evidence that heavy metals in baby food are linked to autism, but they are linked to other neurodevelopmental issues. Moreover, autism often is diagnosed in children who probably all have consumed commercial baby food, which again is a correlation, not causation.

So, I began writing thinking this was all nonsense. Now, I think there’s a problem here, but I don’t know if there is a way to fix it. The food supply chain, across the world, is contaminated “naturally” with these heavy metals. I think science has to figure out a way to process these foods to remove the heavy metals, but I don’t know of a way to do it that doesn’t greatly increase the cost.

I am not an attorney, and I don’t play one on the internet, so I don’t know if these lawsuits will have merit. The baby food companies are not engaging in deceit or negligence, and there is little evidence that these heavy metals in baby food are linked to autism.

I only follow science, and there is something here, scientifically. I just don’t know if it has anything to do with autism.

Citations


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The Original Skeptical Raptor
Chief Executive Officer at SkepticalRaptor
Lifetime lover of science, especially biomedical research. Spent years in academics, business development, research, and traveling the world shilling for Big Pharma. I love sports, mostly college basketball and football, hockey, and baseball. I enjoy great food and intelligent conversation. And a delicious morning coffee!