Heavy metals and food choice

The overwhelming food choice (Photo: Cailin Lowry)

The overwhelming food choice (Photo: Cailin Lowry)

Most of us are less adventurous when it comes to food choice. Not you, I hear you say, but think again. You go into the big supermarket and it has been estimated that you might face a choice of 30,000 varieties of different foods. In one isle there are 200 different packets of breakfast cereals. And you probably go for the kind you are used to buy nine times out of ten, right? Or that might be ten times out of ten.

You don’t believe me? You better do, because I have consumer behaviour science behind me. As a matter of fact we stick to less than about 400 different products in a year out of the 30,000 available. We are so spoilt for choice that we get overwhelmed and go for what we already know best. There are only a few periods in life when we might consider major change. One is when we move together with a partner and the other is when we get children.

Survey of food for young children

Interesting fact you think, but what has it to do with heavy metals? As a matter of fact a lot. In 2013, the Swedish Food Administration published the results of a survey of contaminants and minerals in food for infants and young children. They analysed the minerals iron, copper and manganese and the heavy metals arsenic, lead and cadmium in 92 different foods specifically intended for children: infant formula follow-on formula, porridge, gruel and foods for special medical purposes (primarily infant formula, enteral formula and supplementary foods intended for sick children). Even some foods for normal consumption that children are likely to consume were included in the study, mainly rice-, oat-, and soya-based drinks as they are used as alternatives for children who do not drink milk.

Young children vulnerable to heavy metals (Photo: paparutzi)

Young children vulnerable to heavy metals (Photo: paparutzi)

Let’s focus on the heavy metals. The results showed that arsenic, lead and cadmium were present in many of the food products included in the study, no surprise there. However, the authors expressed concerns over the arsenic levels found in porridge, gruel and rice-based drinks. It was considered that rice-based drinks in particular might pose a health problem for young children. They were also concerned about the lead levels found in a third of infant formula products and in two thirds of food for children with special needs since young children are particularly sensitive to the effects of lead. Five cereal-based porridge and gruel products contained elevated levels of cadmium that might pose adverse health effects in children, as did two soya drinks.

The authors concluded that the levels of arsenic, lead and cadmium found in some products were unacceptable considering that children who are growing and developing are particularly vulnerable and effects of such substances may be irreversible. And now we come to the crucial recommendation from the study. It was proposed that parents reduce the risk of adverse health effects by varying between different brands of porridge, gruel and plant-based drinks given to their young children.

Do we need to change how to calculate exposure?

But will they? Less likely according to the findings reported at the top of this blog. And this might have an impact on the way exposure to contaminants should be calculated (my speciality by the way). Normally when considering long-term exposure (chronic effects) it is assumed that consumers will vary their food intake and thus average contamination levels across food categories are used in the calculations. Only in acute scenarios are extreme contamination levels in individual brands considered. But what about the unlucky consumer that happens to prefer the brand with the highest contamination level and picks this every time?

Different ways of calculating exposure needed

Different ways of calculating exposure needed

Scientists at the European Food Safety Authority recently published a comparison of different ways of calculating exposure to cadmium. They reported that mean values of dietary exposure to cadmium in the European population were of similar magnitude using deterministic or probabilistic assessments. For higher exposure levels, probabilistic estimates were almost consistently higher than their deterministic counterparts, thus reflecting the importance of using the full distribution of contamination levels to calculate exposure. The proportion of consumers exceeding what is considered tolerable exposure to cadmium in the long-term varied between 15% to 30% depending on age group and population survey.

Should this be acceptable? The Swedish researchers clearly thinks not with their results revealing remarkable deficiencies in the rules for heavy metals in products intended for young children. For example, they pointed out that there is no legislation governing levels of arsenic in food and no maximum levels for cadmium in foods for infants and young children. As far as lead is concerned, there are maximum levels for different types of foods for children. But their study showed that these are not set low enough to protect children from potentially harmful health effects when parents are sticking to the same food brand and it happens to be the most highly contaminated.

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