Heavy Metals in Our Food? Your Questions, Answered

Dahlia Rimmon, MS, RDN
February 27, 2024

There has been a significant increase in media coverage surrounding heavy metals in food products, and for good reason. Over the past few years, numerous reports have revealed the presence of heavy metals in various foods, such as dried herbs, spices, and dark chocolate. High levels have also been detected in baby and children’s food items, such as applesauce pouches and rice cereals. Exposure to heavy metals poses significant health risks, particularly affecting the growth and development of children. Increased public concern surrounding these risks has prompted discussions and regulatory measures aimed at addressing heavy metal exposure.  

What are heavy metals?

Heavy metals are naturally occurring substances found in the Earth's crust. They can enter our food supply through air pollution, contaminated water, soil, and food manufacturing processes. The primary metals that make it into our food are lead, arsenic, mercury, and cadmium.

How do heavy metals affect our health?

Prolonged exposure can have a serious impact on human health, with a wide array of symptoms, ranging from headaches and gastrointestinal issues to more severe conditions like anemia, infertility, neurological issues, and increased risk of cancer. 

Young children and infants are especially susceptible to the detrimental effects of heavy metals. Exposure is associated with neurocognitive development issues, which is why it is critical that consumers are informed and levels are regulated in our food supply.

How does the FDA regulate heavy metals?

The FDA oversees levels of heavy metals in the food supply through FDA regulations and testing. Testing efforts are focused on reported contaminated products and foods typically consumed by infants and children, such as infant cereals and fruit pouches.

Companies that grow and produce foods in the U.S. must adhere to the regulations of the FDA and the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. For companies importing products into the U.S., the FDA issues import alerts to prevent potentially contaminated products from coming into the country.

In 2021, the FDA rolled out a new, evidence-based initiative called Closer to Zero, which details its strategy for reducing heavy metals in baby food. Many baby food products contain nutritious ingredients like sweet potato, spinach, and carrots. These foods naturally contain heavy metals, so removing them completely isn't the goal. Instead, the FDA strategizes solutions to reduce exposure in foods with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food manufacturers, and farmers.


In January 2023, the FDA introduced action levels for lead in processed baby foods. According to the FDA, “Action levels are one regulatory tool the FDA uses to help lower levels of chemical contaminants in foods when a certain level of a contaminant is unavoidable, for example, due to environmental factors.” The intention of action levels are to mitigate dietary exposure and subsequent health effects from contaminated foods. Action levels for lead include: 

  • 10 parts per billion (ppb) for fruits, vegetables, grain and meat-based mixtures, yogurts, custards, puddings, and single-ingredient meats
  • 20 ppb for root vegetables 
  • 20 ppb for dry cereals


According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), contaminated drinking water has the highest levels of arsenic. The FDA regulates the bottled water industry by setting allowable levels to 10 ppb, consistent with the standards established by the EPA for public drinking water. 

Apple juice typically contains elevated levels of arsenic as well. In June 2023, the FDA established an action level for arsenic in apple juice at 10 ppb.


While mercury inevitably ends up in our food supply, specifically in seafood, the FDA’s goal is to limit exposure by providing guidance on the best types of fish to eat, based on mercury content.

Bottled Water

Similar to arsenic, the FDA established allowable levels of other heavy metals in bottled water, which include:

  • Lead -  5 pbb (a lower threshold compared to EPA’s 15 ppb, since lead could also leach from pipes.)
  • Mercury -  2 ppb
  • Cadmium -  5 pbb

What is Proposition 65?

Although heavy metals are not state regulated, California implemented Proposition 65 as a labeling regulation requirement, which alerts consumers about potential chemical exposures. lso known as the Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986, Proposition 65 requires businesses to warn consumers about specific chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects, or reproductive harm.The legislation includes a list of approximately 900 chemicals known to cause harmful effects.

The Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA) oversees Proposition 65, while enforcement falls to the California Attorney General's Office. District attorneys, city attorneys, consumer advocacy groups, or individuals acting in the public interest can also enforce Proposition 65, by initiating legal action against businesses suspected of violating regulations. Interestingly, in 2022, more than 90% of pre-litigation notices sent to food, beverage, and supplement companies pertained to heavy metals.

How can ENTR help?

ENTR can help streamline the intricacies of the food and beverage development and compliance processes. Our all-in-one platform is tailored to streamline regulatory compliance processes by making them more accessible and manageable.

Written by guest contributor Dahlia Rimmon, MS, RDN

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