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Norwich University environmental chemist Professor Seth Frisbie, dressed in an olive-colored T-shirt and jeans, stands among machines and lab equipment on campus at Norwich University.

Norwich environmental chemist Professor Seth Frisbie and his wife and research partner, Erika Mitchell lead study

Outdated U.S. regulations for manganese in infant formula and toddler nutritional drinks are potentially putting children at risk, according to the authors of a new study published in today’s issue of the PLoS ONE science journal.

Led by Norwich University environmental chemist Professor Seth Frisbie and his wife and research partner of more than 20 years, Erika Mitchell, Ph.D., the study analyzed manganese levels in 44 varieties of infant formula and toddler nutritional beverages sold in the United States and France.

The scientists found that manganese concentrations were 32 to 1,000 times greater in those products than levels reported in human breast milk.

While manganese is an essential nutrient in trace amounts, research over the past decade suggests excess exposure turns the heavy metal into a neurotoxin with serious adverse effects on child neurodevelopment.

Scientists have linked excessive manganese exposure in children to lower IQs, impaired memory function and academic skills and increased risk of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, behavior, and attention problems.

While manganese is an essential nutrient in trace amounts, research over the past decade suggests excess exposure turns the heavy metal into a neurotoxin with serious adverse effects on child neurodevelopment.

Frisbie and Mitchell say the nearly 40-year-old U.S. nutrition guidelines for manganese have failed to keep up with current research into its neurotoxic effects.

“The bottom line is that there’s arguably a large amount of manganese supplied by infant formula,” Frisbie says. “Especially if you compare it to breast milk, which you would assume to have a near optimal concentration.”

Current U.S. regulations stipulate that infant formula must contain a minimum manganese concentration of 5 micrograms per 100 kilocalories but set no maximum limit.

By contrast, European Union and French regulations set a far lower minimum threshold of 1 microgram per 100 kilocalories for infant formula manganese. Those same regulations stipulate a maximum allowable ceiling of 100 micrograms per 100 kilocalories.

Study authors say supplementing infant formulas and toddler drinks with manganese is unnecessary.

“The standard assumption — among at least the World Health Organization and the EU — is that an infant who is fed solely breast milk from a healthy mother, that infant turns out fine,” Mitchell says.

Frisbie also notes that humans are able to absorb the element in sufficient trace amounts from any diet that includes dairy products, grains, or vegetables.

Proton particle accelerator

In their study, Frisbie and Mitchell collaborated with longtime research partner Richard Ortega, Ph.D., at the University of Bourdeaux and other international scientists.

Working at the French university, the team used a particle accelerator to shoot protons at dried samples of infant formulas and toddler drinks whose principal ingredients ranged from cow’s or goat’s milk to soy or rice, as well as chocolate-flavored drinks.

Samples of infant formulas and toddler beverages containing soy and chocolate had the highest concentrations of manganese, while products derived from goat’s and cow’s milk contained the least.

Using particle-induced X-ray emission (PIXE) and Rutherford backscattering spectrometry techniques, researchers measured the frequency and intensity of X-rays emitted from the proton-targeted samples. The data enabled the scientists to detect the presence and concentration of manganese in samples with extreme accuracy.  

Samples of infant formulas and toddler beverages containing soy and chocolate had the highest concentrations of manganese, while products derived from goat’s and cow’s milk contained the least.

The researchers cautioned that their limited product sampling method does not enable a broader market analysis.

However, based on their findings, the study authors are calling on regulators to take three immediate actions:

  • Eliminate the manganese minimum requirement for infant formula
  • Eliminate the use of supplemental manganese in infant formula
  • Remove the loophole that enables U.S. producers to market toddler products as comparable to infant formulas despite their failure to meet U.S. infant formula regulations.

“One way to easily improve the situation would be to simply get rid of this regulation that requires a minimum amount of manganese in infant formula,” Mitchell says. “Because that would hopefully take away the motivation to supplement formula with manganese.”

The study is available here: https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0223636.

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