Pick up any packaged food from a grocery store shelf and you’re bound to find a few strange additives on the ingredients list. But a new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests that while all these chemicals have been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), that doesn’t mean they’re safe for kids.
The report highlights a number of chemicals that can interfere with children’s hormones, cause problems with development and lead to obesity, and calls on the urgent need to reform the food additive regulatory process.
In the United States, there are more than 10,000 food additives that are used in preserving, packaging or modifying the taste, texture or appearance of foods, and many of them came into use before a rigorous testing process was in place, or they fall into a category of ingredients that are “Generally Recognized as Safe,” which means they don’t actually need to be assessed by the FDA. In fact, in a recent review of almost 4,000 food additives, a whopping 64 percent had no research demonstrating that they were safe to eat. Many additives that are present in foods can’t even be found on the ingredients label because they’re part of the packaging—they just slowly seep into the food. Some of these chemicals pose a risk to kids, moreso than adults, because their bodily systems responsible for filtering out harmful compounds are still developing and they’re undergoing growth processes that could easily be disrupted.
“We need more research to better understand how food additives affect human health,” says Jennifer Lowry, chairperson of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Environmental Health. “Retesting is most important for the chemicals with increasing evidence of risks, but also those with safety data based on outdated testing methods or animal studies.”
Wondering what you can do to protect your own kids while we await government organizations to tighten regulations? Avoid these six additives, which appear to be particularly problematic.
Though you might not think of BPA as a food additive, this substance that’s used in plastic containers and metal cans leaches into food, and once it gets into the body, it acts like estrogen. For kids, that means it can change the timing of puberty, increase body fat and affect the immune system. Down the line, it can also affect fertility. BPA isn’t the only offender—there are other bisphenols that present similar risks. To be safe, opt for glass or stainless-steel containers and, if possible, choose fresh or frozen vegetables rather than canned, especially during pregnancy.
Another component of food packaging, phthalates are found in flexible plastic (think plastic wrap), and have been shown to reduce testosterone in the body. They can affect genital development in boys and contribute to childhood obesity and heart disease. If a plastic has recycling code 3 (the number 3 appears inside the recycling symbol), that’s a dead giveaway that it contains phthalates. To avoid phthalates and other harmful components of plastic, never put plastic in the dishwasher or microwave. (That means no heating breastmilk or formula in plastic too.)
These chemicals are found in grease-proof paper and cardboard food packaging (such as the paper or boxes you’re served burgers or fries in at fast food restaurants). They’re known to reduce birth weight, and affect fertility and immunity. Some research suggests that PFCs affect the thyroid, which is key to metabolism, digestion, muscle control, brain development, and bone strength.
This chemical is used in the packaging of dry foods to control static electricity. Previous research has found startling perchlorate levels in baby rice cereals. Perchlorate can disrupt brain development early in life and affect the thyroid, which is particularly problematic in pregnancy, when the baby is reliant on the mother’s thyroid. To limit exposure, opt for fresh, whole foods over processed, packaged ones, whenever possible.
These act as preservatives in cured and processed meats and cheese, but they’ve also been declared possible carcinogens. Nitrates and nitrites can interfere with thyroid hormone production and the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen—and infants are particularly vulnerable because their gastrointestinal tracts are still maturing. So when it comes to meat, serve more freshly prepared options and fewer deli meats.
Foods with artificial colours are often marketed to kids because they look bright and fun. But there isn’t a lot of research proving their safety—in part because many those ingredients fall under patent protection. What research we do have has shown that these colouring agents can affect behaviour and worsen symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The good news is that studies have shown that when parents cut synthetic food colourings out of their kids’ diets, ADHD symptoms decrease.