Even organic baby food might still contain lead

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When it comes to bringing up baby, conscientious moms and dads want the best-quality products money can buy. But as a new analysis on baby and toddler foods shows, higher prices and organic labels don't always mean a product is free of potentially harmful contaminants.

The Clean Label Project, a Denver-based nonprofit scientific organization, had 628 items—representing 90 percent of the $7 billion baby and toddler food market—blind tested in an independent lab for 130 contaminants such as pesticide residue, lead, arsenic, and BPA. The Clean Label Project's medical board then set a minimum standard of contaminants for products to contain and published the least-contaminated products in its first-ever CLP Magnified List, Baby Food, published this week.

"While no product is contaminant-free, the bottom 19 percent of products contain significantly more toxins than the top 19 percent," according to the report. The group found that the bottom 19 percent of items contained more than six times the level of lead, almost six times more bisphenol A (or BPA), and more than 14 times the levels of arsenic than the top 19 percent.

BPA has been linked to medical issues such as cancer, diabetes, and obesity, and the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, recently reminded the world that there is no safe level of lead consumption. Meanwhile the FDA has set forth no regulations on safe levels of inorganic arsenic present in infant rice cereals.

"There is a significant difference in the options consumers can purchase," Doug Porter, board chair of the Clean Label Project, told TakePart. And that difference doesn't hinge on price or organic certification.

Indeed, the analysis of baby formulas, cereals and snacks, jar meals, pouches, and drinks found that affordable options, including Up & Up, Gerber, and Babies R Us, made the list, as did pricier organic brands such as Earth's Best and Baby's Only.

"I think it's important to understand that the organic certification measures the process of growing the food," said Porter. "It does not measure the end product at all."

The Clean Label Project didn't provide TakePart with a list of the most contaminated items. But this isn't the first time baby food has been put in the spotlight for containing potential toxins.

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Microwave popcorn

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Non-organic fruit

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Processed meats

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Farmed salmon

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Refined sugars

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Canned tomatoes 

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Potato chips

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Hydrogenated oils

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Artificial sweeteners

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Foods that are highly salted, pickled, or smoked

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Red meat

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Highly processed white flours

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"Diet" or "Low Fat" anything

(Photo by Nancy Stone/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)

Genetically modified organisms (GMO's)

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In 2014, the Environmental Law Foundation took baby food manufacturers including Beech Nut, Del Monte Food, and Gerber to court over undisclosed levels of lead in their products. The following year, a California Superior Court Judge rejected the foundation's request that products contain health warning labels about the amount of lead they contain.

RELATED: The 6 Scariest Chemicals in Your Food

As for the Clean Label Project's list, Cathy Dunn, internal communications manager for Gerber, wrote in an email to TakePart that the company's "products meet all government standards for contaminants and we are continually working with academics, growers, and others to get the lowest contaminant levels possible."

Gerber has reached out to the nonprofit for "additional information on what standards were used. It is difficult to evaluate the study results without this information." And health labels about contaminants such as lead are still off the table. "We believe in being transparent with our consumers but do not know if this is the best way to communicate this information," wrote Dunn.

"Most companies by and large are concerned, they want to do the right thing," Porter said. But public pressure can force baby food manufacturers to change their production or labeling practices. "If we educate consumers, and there's a right level of concern out there which pushes them to make certain purchase choices, I believe the manufacturers will meet the demand," he said.

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