Motherly Collective

Reports have surfaced within the last two years that heavy metals and toxins were present in a handful of reputable baby food brands, and a more recent report showed that homemade baby food may contain just as many toxins as store-bought baby food. This is frightening for parents. 

Healthy brain development isn’t just about what’s inside the food we eat—it’s also about what’s not inside. There is clear science demonstrating the negative impacts that heavy metals, like lead, can have on a developing brain

Related: 10 key foods to build your baby’s brain development

During the years I spent studying the brain, first as a neurosurgeon and then as a developmental neurobiologist, I learned that your baby’s first three years are uniquely critical for brain development. First, it’s a period of astronomical growth. Your baby’s brain grows up to one percent per day and can make up to thousands of neural connections per second! While some amount of growth continues until your early teens, the great majority happens in those first three years. The rest of your life is spent creating new connections between those neurons, through the process we call learning and memory. That’s why heavy metal exposure at such an early age can seriously hinder brain development.

Taking matters into my own hands

During my graduate studies at Stanford, I had three children. One of the most immediate (and persistent) questions I faced was what to feed my kids. It was in answering this question that I came to realize the somewhat shocking delta between the well-established science on the impact of nutrition on healthy brain development—and what is found in our baby foods today. 

Being more interested in reading stories with my kids than steaming broccoli, I sought out ready-made options. But I was disappointed by the store-bought baby foods I found on the shelves of my local grocery store. I flipped over every pouch only to discover a startling lack of genuine nutrition. In fact, while my team’s research showed that there are 16 nutrients critical to support this early brain development period, the majority of baby food brands only had two to four, and not necessarily at meaningful levels. 

Related: Baby gut health is a powerful tool when it comes to allergies and eczema

It felt like my only options were to either offer my children subpar nutrition or take to my own kitchen to make homemade baby food. Despite my many commitments, I chose the latter—even if it meant staying up into the early hours, steaming and pureeing vegetables, grinding up sunflower seeds and baking spinach-rich green muffins. 

Radically rethinking baby nutrition

It was clear to me that I was not the only parent facing this dilemma. So, I decided to challenge the standards of the baby food industry and launched a baby food company, Cerebelly, that takes a combination of up-to-date early childhood nutrition and developmental neuroscience to provide a vegetable-first, science-based baby food that provides specific nutrition at specific times to support brain and body. 

I didn’t cut corners. Cerebelly’s brain-boosting baby food products are organic, non-GMO, contain no added sugar, and undergo rigorous testing for heavy metals and toxins. On top of that, we underwent screening from the third-party Clean Label Project in which we became the first shelf-stable baby food brand to receive their Clean Label Purity Award. While this approach seemed like the only way to do baby food properly, none of these steps are standard. 

Related: The FDA is finally taking steps to reduce lead in baby food

It’s time for the industry to put science first. It’s time to focus on keeping high levels of heavy metals out of our foods and getting the right nutrients at the right time into it. It’s time to radically rethink how we nourish our kids. 

We created Cerebelly to make this superior nutrition accessible to parents, and I’m proud that we’ve been able to achieve that. In fact, we just secured a patent for our food composition of 16 essential nutrients to support optimal cognitive neurodevelopment. 

But making homemade food for your family also has innumerable, rich benefits: 

  • Exposing kids to flavors you eat as a family
  • Prioritizing the social component of cooking together and sharing a meal
  • Passing along family traditions
  • Preparing fresh ingredients

I could go on! Mental health is also brain health, and sometimes mental health means popping open a pouch while other times it means laying out a homemade spread. For those opportunities where homemade food is on the menu, there are a few themes you can use to help decide which ingredients to use. 

Heavy metals in our world are inescapable, but consciously trying to minimize that exposure is worthwhile. 

5 tips to making your own—or shopping store-bought—brain-boosting baby food

Whether you’re purchasing store-bought baby food or making your own at home, here are my top five tips for what to look out for and consider to both boost your baby’s brain health and reduce heavy metals in baby food. 

1. Explore less common veggies and fruits 

There are many essential nutrients that support healthy brain development—and they aren’t all found in your basic, everyday fruits and veggies. 

To make sure your little one is getting the nutrients they need, look to a wide variety of vegetables and fruits like kelp, maitake mushrooms, squash seeds, algal oil and sunflower seeds that have high nutritional density, including DHA, iron, zinc and vitamin E. Visit our website for a plethora of ingredient ideas. 

2. Make smart decisions in how you shop for produce

The majority of the problem with heavy metals isn’t in the food preparation but the soil in which we grow the vegetables. Pay close attention to vegetables that are grown in soil and peel them before cooking—and vary the types you serve

One tip is to buy baby carrots instead of whole carrots. Baby carrots are not actually a younger carrot, but the heart of a carrot that has been whittled down to a smaller size, which means less exposure to heavy metals found on the outer surface. 

Related: Are there heavy metals in your kid’s juice? The details of Consumer Reports’ investigation

It’s also worth noting that because something is labeled as organic doesn’t mean it’s free of heavy metals. In fact, there was a non-significant trend for higher heavy metals in organic vs non-organic baby food. Ultimately, it’s much less how you grow the produce, and more so where you grow the produce, which is why variety is key. 

3. Don’t be fooled by packaging claims

Flip your food, as it’s the nutrition inside that counts. A box, jar or pouch may tout spinach on the front of the package, but if it only has 2% of a child’s daily value of iron, you are probably getting the equivalent of 1 calorie of spinach. 

Packaging can be very misleading, but the nutritional panel is regulated and must tell the truth without bias. Look at the first-listed ingredients, which are in the largest proportions. 

Related: The FDA’s new definition of ‘healthy’ could make grocery shopping easier

4. Opt for veggies over fruit

As a general rule, look for vegetable-first baby foods, rather than fruit-first foods, which can be high in fruit sugars. A child in the first 18 months is really working to develop their palate and figuring out what their normal meal looks and tastes like. It’s powerful to help kids learn early on to appreciate a diversity of nutrient-dense tastes.

Related: 8 brain-developing foods even your pickiest eater will love

5. Look for the Clean Label Project Certified seal

Shockingly, outside of normal food standards, there’s very little regulation around baby food in North America. That means harmful contaminants, like heavy metals, can wind up in the food we feed our babies. 

Lead, which hinders the entire development of a baby’s brain, has been found in many different types of baby food. This is why it’s imperative that you choose baby food from a brand that uses third-party testing to screen for heavy metals.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother's journey is unique. By amplifying each mother's experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you're interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.