How to Minimize Toxins in Your Baby’s Food

When choosing food for your baby, a few important questions often come to mind: Is this providing the specific nutrients your child needs? Is it appropriate for their age? And of course, is it safe?

Every day, more than 82,000 chemicals are released into our air, water, soil, food, and consumer products.1 2 We are regularly exposed to a long list of toxins classified as “endocrine disruptors” because of the many ways they affect hormones in the body.3 They are most commonly known by their acronyms—BPA, DDT, HCB, PBDE, PBA, PCB, and PFOCs. These toxins come to us through our drinking water, meat, dairy, polluted air, household cleaners, beauty and skin products, building and furniture materials, lawn products, and more. Unfortunately, many of these chemicals are not well regulated.

As toxins have increased in our environment, so too have medical conditions related to them.4 5 Particularly disturbing are toxins’ effects on adverse birth outcomes, reproduction, fertility, and immune and hormone function.6 For example, metal contaminants actually change hormones and can affect a human’s entire lifecycle.7 These changes begin at preconception and are further impacted by the mother’s own toxic load.8

When it comes to babies and young children, endocrine-disrupting chemicals in the environment, breastmilk, and/or formula may hinder development of the hypothalamus (a small region of the brain that maintains homeostasis in the body), as well as the organization of brain hormones.9 10 Endocrine disruptors can affect overall cognition and contribute to neurobehavioral disorders and obesity.11 Fetuses and babies are the most susceptible because their organs are less able to filter toxins out of the body.12 13 Unfortunately, babies are commonly exposed to toxins through breastmilk or formula, as well as baby products for skin and hair, fire retardants in clothing, and plastic toys.14

Toxins remain in the body for a long time, so it’s important to minimize exposure as much as possible.

Minimizing Toxins in Your Baby’s Food

Managing and minimizing toxins in your baby’s food can be tricky because:

  • Diet is a primary source of toxins.15
  • Pesticides are prevalent in fatty foods such as dairy and fish.16
  • Herbicides and pesticides are widely used in agriculture to produce higher crop yields.17
  • Chemicals are used to preserve foods for global transport and prolong the amount of time food can sit on a grocery store shelf.18

In all, the amount and type of toxins that remain on food vary considerably.19 It’s equally important to support the body’s detoxification functions by eating foods rich in antioxidants, fiber, and nutrients, as well as drinking clean water to help filter toxins out of cells and eliminate them from the body.

Below is an overview of foods and beverages known to contain the highest levels of toxins. You’ll also find suggestions for reducing and limiting toxin exposure in your home and kitchen.

Food & Drink Highest in Toxins and Pesticides

1. Conventionally Grown Fruits & Vegetables

A pile of pA pile of strawberries before they have been prepared for a baby starting solid foods

When it comes to produce, a few foods have notoriously high levels of pesticide residue.20 When possible, buy these foods organic:  

If organic produce is not affordable or accessible to you, opt for produce that tends to be lowest in pesticide residue:21

That said, conventional fruit is better than no fruit, so do what is best for your family.

2. Farmed Salmon, Wild Fish & Shellfish

Fresh sockeye salmon on a table before being prepared for babies starting solids

Chemical pollution emitted into the air from coal, oil, and natural gas plants is rain-washed into our oceans and rivers; as such, nearly all fish ecosystems now contain varying levels of toxic metals and pollutants.22 23 24 25 Of particular concern is mercury, a metal that is converted by microorganisms to methylmercury, which is a neurotoxin that builds up in fish and known to cause brain damage.26 The most susceptible? Fetuses, babies, and children.27

Unfortunately, some farmed fish – including farmed salmon and catfish – contain multiple persistent organic pollutants (POPs), which bind to fats in fish (and humans), and are linked to metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and insulin resistance.28 29 30

When shopping for salmon, look for fresh wild-caught salmon from Alaska, which tends to be low in toxins.31 Wild Alaskan salmon varieties include Chinook (King), Chum, Coho, Pink, and Sockeye. Canned salmon is an excellent option, too – just look for “no salt added” or “low sodium,” as well as “BPA-free.” Canned fish can be high in sodium, and BPA is a chemical used to line the interior of cans and pouches that can disrupt your baby’s hormone levels and bodily functions. Companies are increasingly moving toward “BPA-free” food packaging; however, similar chemicals called BPS and BPF are also used to line containers. While they are considered endocrine-disruptors, there is no legislation requiring labeling of these chemicals on food products.32 33

For more about the best fish for babies (and which fish you should absolutely avoid), check out our guide: Best And Worst Fish For Babies.

3. Meat

90% of human exposure to dioxins comes from consuming fatty foods, including meat, fish, and shellfish.34 35 This happens because dioxins, a class of persistent pollutants, bind to fats.36 When possible, purchase organic, pasture-raised meat products for your baby. If that is not affordable or accessible to you, trim the fat to reduce the toxic exposure.

4. Cured Meat & Deli Meat

Nitrates are a natural part of some foods, but processed meat contains unusually high levels of added sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite, which may be linked to increased cancer risk.37 While “no-nitrate” or “no nitrate added” sausage is available at grocery stores, the labeling law in the United States permits sausage producers to add naturally-occurring nitrates, often in the form of celery juice or extract.38 The Center for Science and Public Interest and Consumer Reports have petitioned the United States Department of Agriculture to revise the labeling rules, citing current labeling language is misleading to consumers. Nitrates naturally present in vegetables appear to be relatively safe when consumed in whole food form.39 To minimize exposure to added preservatives, offer unprocessed fresh meat and poultry as available.

5. Conventional Milk & Dairy Products

There are many inconclusive studies about potential adverse effects of endocrine disruptors fed to cows to increase milk production in commercial operations. This includes the Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH/rBST). However, animal feed is the primary source of dioxin contamination, and dioxins attach to fats.40 41

To minimize exposure to toxins, buy organic dairy products when possible. If your pediatrician permits it, opt for low-fat milk, yogurt, and cheese, which will have fewer toxins overall.

6. Canned Foods & Pouches

Chemicals used in the lining of cans and pouches, especially bisphenol-A (BPA), leach from the packaging lining into food.42 High-fat food such as tuna, salmon, olives, and coconut cream are especially vulnerable to toxins, which bind to fats.43 While many companies have removed BPA from their cans, substitutes (such as BPS and BPF) are still toxic.44 To minimize exposure to toxins, limit the amount of canned food you buy for your baby, purchase BPA-free products when possible, rinse canned fish, beans, and other foods before consuming, or purchase frozen foods, instead.

7. Food Coloring & Dyes

About 70% of the typical American diet comes from processed foods, much of which are artificially colored for appeal.45 In addition, 90% of artificial dyes are derived from petroleum.46

To minimize exposure to toxins, look for natural food colorings most commonly derived from fruits and vegetables. These may be listed under ingredients such as:47

8. Processed Foods & Baked Goods

Sodium aluminum sulfate and potassium aluminum sulfate hide in processed foods, including self-rising flours, baked goods, cereals, cheese, and microwave popcorn.48

95% of an American’s exposure to aluminum comes from food sources. Aluminum exposure is toxic to the central nervous system, the skeletal system, blood production, and minimizing aluminum in babies is imperative.49

To minimize exposure to aluminum in food, purchase locally-made baked goods free of preservatives, bake at home with aluminum-free baking powder, and generally limit processed foods in your baby’s diet.

9. Packaged Baby & Toddler Food

Baby food is often made from ingredients – rice, sweet potatoes, and carrots – that, as plants, easily absorb heavy metals in the soil, including arsenic, lead, and cadmium.50 Unfortunately, this includes organic baby food and most major brands. One study found that two-thirds of baby food tested positive for “concerning levels of cadmium, lead and/or inorganic arsenic,” and many rice products contain methylmercury.51 A 2021 congressional report confirmed those findings and revealed many leading baby food manufacturers knowingly sell products with metal levels far exceeding the FDA and EPA’s maximum allowable levels for other products, including bottled water. 52

Instead, limit the amount of packaged foods and watch out for foods containing rice. For more information, check out our pages on rice and rice cereal.

10. Tap Water

Many toxins are filtered from tap water in most cities, but there are still upwards of thousands of potential contaminants, such as fluorinated chemicals (PFAS), dioxins, arsenic, and lead.53 54 55

To minimize exposure to toxins from water, filter tap water (reverse osmosis filters are a great start). You can also call your local water facility and ask for information about which minerals and chemicals are in the city water, which is public information. If you have a well, be sure to test the water regularly.

11. Beverages in Plastic Bottles

When plastic is heated, toxins such as BPA leach out of the bottle and into the product contained within.56 Heating and cooling are common during shipping and storage of beverages in plastic, leading to the contamination of the water and beverages we often drink.57

To minimize toxin exposure, drink filtered tap water in glass or stainless-steel containers, and resist the urge to store plastic water bottles in your car, especially during the hot summer months.

Toxins in the Kitchen

Choosing toxin-free cookware is another way to limit exposure to toxins in your kitchen and household. Try replacing one or two essential kitchen items at a time, especially those you use the most, such as a pot, a skillet, and even scented soap.

Nonstick Cookware

Nonstick cookware often contains Perfluoroalkyl (PFOA) and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS), chemicals linked to developmental defects, cancer, thyroid disease, and poor immune function.58 59

To minimize exposure to toxins, replace all nonstick pots and pans (as your budget allows) and cook with cast iron, enameled cast iron, stainless steel, carbon steel, or lead-free ceramic and stoneware.60

If you cannot afford to replace nonstick pots and pans, utilize these tips to reduce toxin release:61

  • Cook on low-medium heat.
  • Ensure proper ventilation.
  • Refrain from putting nonstick cookware in the dishwasher
  • Avoid scratching through the top layers of metals by cleaning with gentle scrubbers.
  • Use wooden utensils for cooking.
  • Insert a paper towel or soft cloth between pans when stacking.

Plastic Wrap & Plastic Storage Containers

Plastics contain endocrine disruptors, including bisphenol-A (BPA) and phthalates.62 63

To minimize exposure to these toxins:64

  • Use glass jars or containers for storage.
  • Don’t heat or freeze food in plastic containers or refrigerate food covered in plastic wrap or plastic containers.
  • Reheat food in glass, ceramic, or on the stove using stainless steel or cast-iron rather than in plastic containers or covered in plastic wrap.

Thankfully, most baby bottles made in the U.S. do not contain BPA, though baby bottles appear to contain BPS (labeled as PES).65 When possible, opt for glass bottles rather than plastic.

Scented Hand & Dish Soap

Phthalates are often listed generically as “fragrance” on labels and are prevalent in soaps, including hand soap, baby bottle soap, dishwasher soap, liquid dish soap, and lotions.66 It’s worth noting that plastic baby toys also contain phthalates.67 Early childhood exposure to phthalates may increase the risk for asthma and eczema.68

To minimize exposure to phthalates in soap, look for fragrance-free soaps and brands that list fragrances from natural sources.

Don’t Go Crazy

Toxins are everywhere and are pervasive. While we presented a fairly comprehensive list of toxin sources for your knowledge as a consumer, try not to drive yourself crazy. Choose the areas where reducing toxins in your baby’s life will have the greatest impact — for many, that’s organic dairy, a new cooking pan, or even unpainted, wooden toys.

Let go of the rest, and circle back when you have time to come up for air.

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