The American Academy of Pediatrics says some common food additives may pose significant health risks to children.
A report issued late last month states that some chemicals found in food colorings, preservatives, and packaging materials may harm children’s health.
These additives can interfere with a child’s hormones, growth and development, according to AAP, and may even increase the risk of childhood obesity.
Some additives are put directly in foods, while “indirect” additives may include chemicals from plastic, glues, dyes, paper, cardboard, and different types of coatings used for processing and packaging. The additives of most concern, based on rising research evidence cited in the AAP report, include:
Bisphenols, such as BPA, used to harden plastic containers and line metal cans, can act like estrogen in the body and potentially change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and affect the nervous and immune systems. BPA is now banned in baby bottles and sippy cups.
Phthalates, which makes plastic and vinyl tubes used in industrial food production flexible, may affect male genital development, increase childhood obesity, and contribute to cardiovascular disease. In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of some phthalates in child-care products such as teething rings.
Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs), used in grease-proof paper and cardboard food packaging, may reduce immunity, birth weight, and fertility. Research also shows PFCs may affect the thyroid system, key to metabolism, digestion, muscle control, brain development, and bone strength.
Perchlorate, added to some dry food packaging to control static electricity, is known to disrupt thyroid function, early life brain development and growth.
Artificial food colors, common in children’s food products, may be associated with worsened attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. Studies cited in the report found a significant number of children who cut synthetic food colorings from their diets showed decreased ADHD symptoms.
Nitrates/nitrites are used to preserve food and enhance color, especially in cured and processed meats. These chemicals can interfere with thyroid hormone production and the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen in the body.
Nitrates and nitrites also have been linked with gastrointestinal and nervous system cancers.
Potentially harmful effects of food additives are of special concern for children, according to the AAP. Children are more sensitive to chemical exposures because they eat and drink more, relative to body weight, than adults do, and are still growing and developing.
The AAP recommends safe and simple steps families can take to limit exposures to the chemicals of greatest concern. These include:
Buy and serve more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed meats–especially during pregnancy.
Since heat can cause plastics to leak BPA and phthalates into food, avoid microwaving food or beverages (including infant formula and pumped human milk) in plastic when possible. Also try to avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher.
Use alternatives to plastic, such as glass or stainless steel, when possible.
Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless they are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware.”
Wash hands thoroughly before and after touching food and clean all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.