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  1. Environmental Contaminants in Food

Help Protect Children from Environmental Contaminants: Healthy Food Choices for Your Baby Aged 6-12 Months

FDA research shows that many nutritious foods may contain contaminants from the environment where they are grown or raised.  Read on to learn about environmental contaminants in foods, what FDA is doing, and what you can do to help protect your child.

Environmental Contaminants in Foods

Environmental contaminants refer to chemicals that may be in foods because they are in the environment where foods are grown, raised, or processed. Contaminants can be taken up by plants and animals from the soil, water, and air and can be harmful to human health.

Arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury are environmental contaminants. Amounts in the environment can vary depending on many factors, including the presence of current or past pollution.

Contaminants in the soil, water, and air may be present naturally and from current or past pollution.  Because certain contaminants come from the earth’s crust, there has always been some level in foods. However, it is only with recent scientific advances that we can now measure different types of environmental contaminants in foods at very low levels and are learning more about exposure from the diet.

The FDA’s Closer to Zero program is focused on driving down levels of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury (often referred to as heavy metals) in food commonly eaten by babies and young children.  Our priority is protecting the very young because they are more vulnerable to harmful health effects from exposure to these contaminants.  While we, our federal partners, and the food companies work to lower levels in foods, there are things you can do to help ensure your child has good nutrition—this not only supports their health and development but can also help to protect them from the effects of contaminants.  Read on to learn strategies to support good nutrition from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the United States Department of Agriculture.

Focus on variety

Feeding a variety of age-appropriate healthy foods helps your child get essential nutrients for development and can make it less likely for your child to be exposed to the same contaminant from the same food many times.

  • Work toward a diverse diet. Around age 6 months, as you start feeding single solid foods to your baby, build on those experiences by offering many different foods from across and within the food groups -- vegetables, fruits, grains, protein foods, and dairy.
  • Change it up. When your baby first experiences solid food, they may eat the same food for several feedings in a row. Once your child has experienced a food several times, add a different new food, and then alternate foods to create variety in mealtime.
  • Keep track. A journal can help you recall which foods are in your baby’s diet and plan for your child’s next new food.
  • “Picky eating” is normal as they explore new foods. If your child doesn’t like a new food right away, don’t give up!  It can take up to 10 tries for children to get used to a new food.  Giving your child a variety of foods now can help them enjoy a greater variety of foods as they get older.
  • Wait on these foods. Wait until your baby is at least 1 year of age to give them cow’s milk, fortified soy beverages, or fruit juice.

Many nutrients help protect from the effects of contaminants that foods can absorb from the environment.

Include foods rich in iron and zinc.

Iron and zinc are essential nutrients for child development. They also can help prevent the harmful effects of arsenic, lead, cadmium, and mercury.

  • Include iron- and zinc-fortified infant cereals. Infant cereal is a common staple. It’s easy to prepare and can be combined with solid foods to create more diversity in your baby’s diet.
    • Choose whole grains like whole wheat or barley infant cereal. They provide B vitamins that help protect against the effects of arsenic.
    • Know your grains. Feed your baby iron-fortified cereals to help them get enough iron. Rice cereal shouldn’t be the only source and does not need to be the first source. Other fortified infant cereals include wheat, oat, barley, and multigrain. Read the label to see which grains are ingredients.
  • Include meat, poultry, seafood, and/or beans as key sources of iron, zinc, and other nutrients.
    • Seafood has nutrients that support child brain and immune system development. Choices particularly low in mercury include salmon, catfish, shrimp, and pollock (common in fish sticks).

See the resources below to learn about when, what, and how to introduce solid foods and for tips to help with “picky eating” in a positive way.

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