Disturbing new research from the Environmental Defense Fund in the US indicates that lead is much more common in food – including baby food – than most people realise.

Food may be an underappreciated source of lead contamination since there is no such thing as a safe level of lead in the blood and even small levels of lead can lower IQ and cause behavioural problems.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s examination of data collected by the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) total diet study for the period from 2003 to 2013 found that 20 percent of over 2,000 baby food samples and 14 percent of over 10,000 other food samples had detectable levels of lead.

Which foods had detectable levels?

Eight types of baby foods had detectable lead levels in more than 40 percent of tested samples, a finding many consumers would see as unacceptable.

The FDA has run the study for over 40 years, purchasing and analysing as many as 280 different types of food and drinks from four regions of the country on an annual basis.

Those samples are tested to monitor levels of roughly 800 different pesticides, metals, and other contaminants, including lead.

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Lead levels were not evenly distributed. Fruit juices were much more likely than other types of baby food to contain detectable levels of lead and certain types of juices were especially affected.

By baby food type, 89 percent of 44 samples of grape juice had detectable levels of lead; 67 percent of mixed fruit, 55 percent of apple juice and 45 percent of pear juice samples tested had detectable levels of lead.

Root vegetables also tended to contain lead; 86 percent of tested samples of sweet potato and 43 percent of tested samples of carrot baby foods had detectable levels of lead.

Two cookies rounded out the list of eight types of relatively lead-rich baby foods — arrowroot cookies and teething biscuits with 64 percent and 47 percent, respectively, of tested samples exhibiting detectable levels of lead.

Even more disturbing – baby food versions of grape and apple juices were found to have higher detectable levels of lead than regular juices that were tested which may point to processing techniques and technologies contributing to the issue.

How does lead get into food?

Lead in food can come from a variety of sources, but the FDA believes that soil contamination may be the most common route.

Lead itself can come from lead paint, leaded gasoline, food handling equipment, and even lead arsenate pesticides once used in agriculture.

Soil contamination may explain the tendency of root vegetables to have detectable levels of lead.

The heavy metal has a tendency to bind to the skin of root vegetables (like carrots and sweet potatoes), and is not easily removed by cleaning or scrubbing.

If the lead in food issue does gain traction, it may dampen new product innovation in a couple of key areas.

Root vegetables are currently enjoying a renaissance, with sweet potatoes, carrots, and beets leading the charge as consumers perceive these products as being among the healthiest of food types.

Nearly two-thirds of consumers globally — 64 percent — believe that beets have a positive impact on health, according to a recent GlobalData consumer survey.

That belief could be obliterated if root vegetables begin to be linked with lead contamination.

Carrots – a root vegetable that has made strong inroads in packaged snacks and packaged beverages – could also be vulnerable.

Fruit juices probably do not need any more bad news, but detectable levels of lead in juice will not go over well with families that have young children.

The juice industry is already reeling from the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recent recommendation that kids under the age of one avoid fruit juice, largely because of worries over sugar content (and obesity) as well as dental health issues.

Add lead as a new issue to worry about and it looks like the hole that fruit juice finds itself in is getting deeper. Lead is a particularly worrisome problem for juice because the type of lead found in juice is soluble and is more easily absorbed by the body than other types of lead, like particulate lead.

The issue of lead in food is likely to heat up.

The FDA said that it is “reevaluating its standard” for the maximum daily intake level for lead exposure and the result is likely to be further curbs on acceptable levels of lead in food.

Industry groups are in something of a bind.

Touting products as “lead safe” could direct consumer attention toward an issue the industry probably wishes would just go away.

Then again, if food producers were more pro-active in the first place, lead would not be in the position it is now in to sink parts of the food industry.