Report: Baby food is less toxic but still often contains pesticides

Non-organic baby food is less toxic than it was 30 years ago, but it still contains pesticides at least 38 percent of the time, according to a new report by the Environmental Working Group (EWG). 

EWG researchers noted that federal agencies have made strides in regulating pesticide contamination in baby food, but advised parents and caregivers to use caution at the grocery store.

“Babies and young children are particularly vulnerable to the health risks posed by pesticides in food,” said Sydney Evans, EWG’s senior science analyst and co-author of the report, in a recent press release.

EWG tested 73 baby foods produced by Beech-Nut, Gerber, and Parent’s Choice, three of the most popular brands. Fifty-eight of the products sampled were non-organic, and 22 of those contained at least one detectable pesticide. Researchers identified nine, including captan, linked to elevated cancer risks; fludioxonil, which may cause changes in cells in the immune system; and acetamiprid, a neonicotinoid. Neonics have been linked to everything from the collapse of bee populations to birth defects in white-tailed deer, and they may cause nervous system damage in humans.

While the findings are alarming, EWG said they are actually a sign of progress. The nonprofit conducted similar research in 1995, and its findings were far worse: researchers determined that 53 percent of the 72 baby food products sampled contained at least one pesticide. The pesticides EWG detected in the original study also were far more toxic on average. They included chlorpyrifos, which can cause brain damage in children in low quantities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) banned the use of chlorpyrifos on food in 2021, and researchers did not detect it in their latest study.

The report’s authors argue that federal oversight of pesticides in children’s food is still inadequate. The EPA is charged with overseeing pesticide safety, and a 2020 EWG report found that the agency fails to consider children when it sets the legal limits for 90 percent of common pesticides.

The new study includes recommendations for parents and caregivers for “limiting children’s daily pesticide exposure.” Researchers urged parents to buy organic whenever it’s available and affordable; they didn’t detect any pesticides in the 15 organic products tested. If organic baby food is not an option, researchers advised parents to look for certain ingredients, as some fruits and vegetables carry higher pesticide residues on average than others. For instance, researchers found that non-organic baby food that contains apples was five times more likely to have detectable pesticides, while baby food that is primarily sweet potatoes and peas was pesticide free. EWG compiles lists of produce that tends to have high levels of pesticide residue and produce that tends to be “clean.”