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  • The FDA has released a draft of new guidelines to help reduce lead levels in processed foods meant for children younger than age 2.
  • The initiative is part of a wider effort called “Closer to Zero,” which aims to limit heavy metals in foods.
  • The guidelines are open for comment until March 27.

This week, the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced that they had released draft guidelines to advise the food industry on how to reduce levels of lead in processed foods meant for babies and very young children. These guidelines, which are not slated to become legally binding, are part of a wider slate of FDA initiatives called “Closer to Zero.”

Dr. Christina Johns, a pediatric emergency medicine physician and senior medical advisor at PM Pediatric Care, says that this guidance is a welcome development even if the field is very aware of the risks of lead and other heavy metals.

“These are, I think, a long time coming. It makes sense that we are having very official guidance for lead exposure for children in any sort [of situation], whether it’s paint, whether it’s foods, this makes a lot of sense, and I’m glad to see that it’s finally here,” Johns said.

Dr. Jorge E. Perez, a neonatologist and founder of Florida’s KIDZ Medical Services, sees the guidance as a good initial first step, but says that he thinks the FDA should have worded the guidelines more strongly.

“I thought that they should come out a little bit more strongly and make it, as opposed to just recommend or suggest, that they should make that a requirement of industry standards,” Perez said.

The draft guidelines seek to reduce the parts per billion of lead (ppb for short) in processed foods. The specific range varies, from 10 ppb in things like yogurt and fruit to 20 ppb in cereals and root vegetables. Dr. Derek McClellan, senior medical director at Central Ohio Primary Care, says that using this information to promote good nutrition is a positive.

“I, personally, am big into nutrition, especially in the pediatric world, because it does not only lay the foundation for good health later, specifically, in the terms of lead, those cumulative effects early on are very detrimental to brain growth and development. So, anytime we have an opportunity to limit those chronic exposures through what we eat and drink, I think it’s a win.”

The FDA said that these guidelines could mean a reduction in lead exposure by as much as 24% to 27%.

Experts say that there is no known safe level for lead, and that people need to be aware that lead can be brought into our food from things like soil that contains it.

The FDA does say in the release that these guidelines are not meant to guide food choice by consumers.

Perez says that, while it can seem logical to see homemade baby food as a solution to these high levels of heavy metals, recent reports have found that–because of levels present in grocery store produce–a change in cooking habits wouldn’t be a silver bullet.

“We have to also educate people that not only are we talking about the manufactured foods, but we’re also talking about even the homemade foods. Because remember, a lot of these produces that we get and we purchase at grocery stores also contain these high levels of heavy metals.”

A report produced by the group Healthy Babies Bright Futures, which is focused on reducing infants’ exposure to toxic chemicals, found elevated levels of heavy metals in 95% of products tested.

McClellan says that what we really need is more data to guide parents and caregivers toward safe choices.

“We know a sweet potato has more vitamin A than an orange. So, if we know we want that nutrient, I’m going to direct you towards this food group the same as if we know ‘Hey, this food group tends to have more lead or this fish tends to have more mercury,'” McClellan explained. “It doesn’t mean we are eating zero of that because there’s likely health benefits from that food group too, but we just have to take that in moderation and know that there’s a balance.”

Johns says that the advice her nutritionist colleagues give is to vary the cereal types and brands you’re giving your child to mitigate risk.

“Switching them up can decrease the exposure, the same type of exposure. As these products are manufactured and processed, that is oftentimes where the trace metal elements can sometimes be introduced in small amounts to the product formulation,” Johns said.