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  1. Chemicals, Metals & Pesticides in Food

Metals and Your Food

Metals – both beneficial and harmful – are in many foods. This is because our air, water and soil all contain metals (and elements that combine metals and nonmetals called metalloids). The levels found in food depend on many factors, including: growing conditions; industrial, manufacturing, and agricultural processes; the DNA of the food crops; and past or current environmental contamination. In addition, some metals the human body needs, such as iron, are intentionally added to certain foods, including breakfast cereals and infant formulas, to enhance their dietary benefits.

To keep the U.S. food supply among the safest in the world, the FDA monitors and tests foods and sets standards to ensure appropriate and safe levels of beneficial metals while limiting harmful metals in foods to the greatest extent practical. The FDA also monitors and regulates levels of metals in animal feed and in cosmetics. The FDA uses its authority to take action on a case-by-case basis when the level of metals in FDA regulated products is determined to be unsafe.

The properties of specific metals, the amount of intake, and a person’s age and developmental stage are all key factors that help determine how a metal affects individual health. Even metals that promote health can be harmful if exposure exceeds recommended doses. For example, iron is an essential dietary metal and although the body regulates iron absorption to help safeguard against getting too much, iron poisoning is something that can occur, usually from ingestion of too many iron supplement pills. Symptoms may include severe vomiting, diarrhea, abdominal pain, dehydration and lethargy if not treated properly.

Certain metals, such as arsenic, lead and mercury, have no established health benefit, and have been shown to lead to illness, impairment, and in high doses, death. Understanding the risk that harmful metals pose in our food supply is complicated by the fact that no single food source accounts for most people’s exposure to metals in foods. People’s exposure comes from many different foods containing these metals. Combining all of the foods we eat, even low levels of harmful metals from individual food sources, can sometimes add up to a level of concern.

For information on health risks, FDA regulations and guidance to industry, FDA monitoring and testing, and consumer resources please visit the arsenic, lead and mercury webpages.

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