A new EU-funded study on infants will examine the impact on the health of newborns of chemicals currently found in baby foods.
The project, started by the German National Research Centre for Environment and Health (GSF), will focus in particular on chemicals which affect the hormone system.
Depending on the findings, the project's conclusions could have severe reprecussions for baby food manufacturers if any adverse effects are found.
"Chemicals in commercial baby food have a greater impact on the still embryonic tissue of a growing child than on the tissue of an adult who has stopped growing," said Karl-Werner Schramm, a GSF spokesperson.
More and more babies are either never breastfed or are only breastfed for a short time. Instead, these babies are fed with industrially-prepared formula milk or solids such as vegetable purée.
However, the effects of the chemical residues found in these products on babies' health remains unclear, said Schramm.
"Because the nervous system, respiratory system and reproductive organs of babies are not fully mature, it is harder for them to get rid of toxins," Schramm stated. "Furthermore, children take up health-damaging substances from food more easily than adults do."
Previous scientific studies have indicated that even very low levels of chemicals in food can affect people's hormone systems, he noted.
"The reason for this is that the chemicals mimic human hormones and interact with receptors in our cells," he stated. "If these receptors are triggered by external chemicals, it can lead to long-term health problems."
In the Babyfood project, the scientists involved will develop tests to analyse levels of substances such as cadmium, dioxins and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). These will be tested to see how receptors in our cells react to the 'chemical cocktail' in babies' blood.
"There is evidence that cadmium and pesticides influence oestrogen receptors, while dioxins and PCBs attach themselves to the receptor that triggers damaging oxidative stress in the cell," said Schramm.
The scientists will feed three groups of babies different types of baby food, including normal formula milk, soya or hypoallergenic milk. Using the tests the scientists hope to create a risk assessment for these different types of food.
As the products will be pooled, they will not be able to pass judgement on specific brands, but they expect to be able to develop recommendations for the best kinds of foods to give babies in the first nine months of life, Schramm stated.
The Babyfood project is a part of the EU's Cascade network, which brings together over 20 working groups from nine countries to coordinate and integrate research on chemical residues in food.
Cascade is funded under the EU's food quality and safety thematic area.