Did you know that the United States allows the use of more than 10,000 additives to preserve, package or modify the taste, appearance, texture or nutrients in the everyday foods we eat? And that approximately 1,000 of these additives are legally permitted under a “Generally Recognized as Safe” designation process that doesn’t require U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval?
The purpose of this statement is to review and highlight the harmful effects of various chemicals that are deliberately added to our food (direct food additives such as colorings, flavoring and chemicals), as well as substances used for processing and packaging (indirect food additives such as plastics, glues, dyes, paper, cardboard and different types of coatings). The policy statement also calls for urgently needed reforms to the U.S. food additive regulatory process.
Chemicals in food can harm a child’s growth and development and possibly cause obesity
As a pediatrician and a parent, what I find particularly alarming is the following passage from the press release about the AAP’s policy statement:
“An increasing number of studies suggest some food additives can interfere with a child’s hormones, growth, and development, according to the policy statement and accompanying technical report. Some may also increase the risk of childhood obesity, rates of which have tripled since the 1970s.”
Inadequate FDA regulation of food additives
Due to several problems with the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act, the regulation of food additives is often inadequate, states the report. According to Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, FAAP, an AAP Council on Environmental Health member and lead author of the policy statement, “There are critical weaknesses in the current food additives regulatory process, which doesn’t do enough to ensure all chemicals added to foods are safe enough to be part of a family’s diet.” He adds, “As pediatricians, we’re especially concerned about significant gaps in data about the health effects of many of these chemicals on infants and children.”
The AAP’s conclusion mirrors what I have been telling my patients and my husband for years—that we should be careful about what we eat as well as how we prepare and store what we eat.
Here are the most harmful additives
The food and packaging 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 mimic 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 which is integral 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 elevated attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. Studies cited in the report found that a significant number of children who eliminated synthetic food colorings from their diets showed decreased ADHD symptoms.
- Nitrates/nitrites, used to preserve food and enhance color (especially in cured and processed meats) can interfere with thyroid hormone production and the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen to the body. Nitrates and nitrites also have been linked with gastrointestinal and nervous system cancers.
Potential harmful effects are worse for children
According to the AAP, children are more sensitive to exposure to these chemicals because they eat and drink more than adults relative to body weight. Most importantly, though, the damaging effects of food addictive are greater for children because they are still growing and developing.
“Chemicals that affect the endocrine system, for example, can have lasting effects on a child since hormones coordinate complex functions throughout the body,” Dr. Trasande stated. “Even small disruptions at key moments during development can have lifelong consequences.”
For all of these reasons, the AAP and I recommend 9 safe and simple steps families can take to limit chemical food additive exposure:
- Eat fresh fruits, vegetables, meat and fish whenever possible. If you cannot obtain fresh items, frozen versions are the next best choice.
- Avoid canned foods since bisphenols are used in the lining of metal cans in order to prevent corrosion.
- Avoid processed meats which contain nitrites. This is especially important during pregnancy.
- Avoid microwaving food in plastic. This includes infant formula and expressed breast milk. Heating the plastic can cause chemicals to leech into the food or liquid. Also, microwaving your baby’s milk can cause burns in his/her mouth due to “hot spots” in the milk. Instead, invest in glass or ceramic microwaveable containers.
- Avoid placing plastics in the dishwasher, including baby bottles.
- When possible, store food in glass or stainless steel containers rather than plastic. This is not only good for your health but good for the environment too.
- Check the bottom of your plastic containers for the recycling code. Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene) and 7 (bisphenols) unless they are labeled “biobased” or “greenware.”
- Wash all fruits and vegetables thoroughly before eating, especially those that cannot be peeled.
- Wash hands thoroughly before and after touching food and before eating. This will decrease exposure to chemicals on your hands as well as decrease your risk of infection from germs on your hands.
The AAP has made the following recommendations to reduce chemicals in our food industry:
- A more rigorous and transparent “Generally Recognized as Safe” designation process, including 1) new requirements for toxicity testing before materials can be used in the marketplace, and 2) re-testing previously approved chemicals. (A recent review of nearly 4,000 food additives found that 64% had had no research establishing that they were safe to eat or drink.)
- More research to better understand how food additives affect human health.
- Congressional action. The FDA currently lacks the authority to review existing data on additives already on the market or to re-test their safety for human consumption.
Yes, we all can change
As for me, I am glad that I now have backup from the AAP when I tell my husband to wash the plastic containers by hand instead of putting them in the dishwasher. Actually, come to think of it, I think we will switch to glass.
Important articles you should read:
- American Academy of Pediatrics Says Some Common Food Additives May Pose Health Risks to Children (AAP press release)
- Food Additives and Child Health (AAP policy statement)
- Chemicals in Food May Harm Children, Pediatricians’ Group Says (The New York Times)
Worried about chemical additives in your food? Come see us.
If you’re concerned about the possible harmful effects of additives in your food, whether your family is being exposed to them, and how to reduce or eliminate this danger to your health, please come in and see one of our Westchester Health Pediatrics pediatricians. Or come in and ask us about any aspect of raising healthy kids. We will listen to your concerns and answer all your questions, or refer you to someone who can so you can have peace of mind. Whenever, wherever you need us, we’re here for you.