I won’t lie, I’m a little freaked out right now. I’ve suspected something was going on. I’m a pediatrician and I’ve been seeing unhealthy changes in my patient’s growth, development and behavior over the past 20 years. I’ve also seen first-hand improvements in patient’s behavior when unhealthy foods with fake colors and other additives have been eliminated from a family diet. Is it a coincidence? Or real? I know about the placebo effect and as a scientist and physician try not to jump to any conclusions unless there is real data to back it up. Well, now there is enough evidence to say for sure that some chemicals found in food colorings, preservatives, and packaging materials may be harming our children’s health!
A little background history on what I’m talking about. The U.S. allows the use of more than 10,000 additives in our food. Some of these additives are directly added to make the food last longer, stay fresher, taste better, look more colorful, have a better texture, or even to try to make the food “more nutritious.” Other chemical additives are called “indirect additives” as they aren’t put directly into the food, but they secretly seep into our food from the plastic, paper, cardboard and other packaging or from the glue, coating or dye used in the packaging.
Many of the additives have long, hard to pronounce names and/or abbreviations and were grandfathered in for approval during the 1950s, well before those of us currently grocery shopping for our young children were born. Here is a short list of the most concerning additives that all parents should now be aware of.
This post was written by Scientific Advisor Dr. Tanya Altmann, Spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics
Table of Contents
Artificial food colors (aka Fake Colors, such as Red Dye #40)
Fake colors are common in children’s food products from cereal to snacks to make them look more colorful. Fake colors are often associated with worsened attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. There have been several studies proving this and I can say from personal experience in my own patients that children who cut fake food colorings from their diets are showing decreasing ADHD symptoms.
Dr. Tanya’s Tip: When buying cereal and other food for your children, choose items with no fake colors. Teach your kids to read labels and spot color names and numbers as being artificial (i.e. red #40).
Nitrates & Nitrites
Nitrates are used to preserve food and enhance color, especially in deli/lunch meats. These chemicals can interfere with thyroid hormone production and the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen in the body. This is one of the reasons it’s recommended that pregnant woman and young children avoid nitrates. Such chemicals also have been linked with gastrointestinal and nervous system cancers.
Dr. Tanya’s Tip: Avoid processed deli meats and choose organic, grass-fed lean meats
Bisphenols Such as BPA & BPS
Bisphenols are used to harden plastic containers, like water bottles and reusable food containers, and line metal cans. Bisphenols can act like estrogen in the body, potentially causing early puberty, decreasing fertility, increasing body fat, and affecting the nervous and immune systems. Fortunately, BPA is banned in baby bottles and sippy cups, but it’s still in so many other things children come into contact with daily, like thermal receipt paper or canned food.
Dr. Tanya’s Tip: Toss the plastic and use glass and metal containers whenever possible. Avoid canned food as much as possible. Don’t allow children to touch receipts.
Phthalates make plastic and vinyl tubes flexible. These are often used to produce packaged foods and 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.
Dr. Tanya’s Tip: Switch to glass and stainless water bottles and eat more organic items. Try cooking from scratch more and eating out less.
Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)
PFCs are used in grease-proof paper and cardboard food packaging like mac and cheese boxes and cereal. PFCs may negatively affect the immune system, interfere with fertility and be linked to low birth weight. Research also shows that PFCs may affect the thyroid system, which in turn affects metabolism, digestion, muscle control, brain development, and bone strength.
Dr. Tanya’s Tip: Avoid non-stick pans, use real plates instead of paper and avoid greasy packaged and fast foods.
Is added to some dry food packaging to control static electricity. Perchlorate is known to disrupt thyroid function, early life brain development and growth. Perchlorate has been found in baby rice cereals, salami and processed meats.
Dr. Tanya’s Tip: Eat real, whole foods instead of packaged whenever possible.
As a pediatrician and mom, I find this very concerning, especially for young children since they are more sensitive to chemicals because they are still growing and developing. Also, kids eat and drink more than adults, relative to body size, so they ingest and absorb more. It’s also known that such chemicals are “endocrine disruptors,” which means they can disrupt the endocrine/hormone system which controls important functions in the body and therefore have life-long consequences on a child. In addition, the annual estimated health-care costs tied to endocrine disrupting chemicals are estimated to be roughly $340 billion.
The good news is that it’s not just a few of us who feel that way, the American Academy of Pediatrics, an organization made up of over 67,000 pediatricians put out these recommendations today:
- The AAP calls for a more rigorous and transparent “Generally Recognized as Safe” designation process, including new requirements for toxicity testing before use in the marketplace and re-testing previously approved chemicals.
- Increased research is needed to better understand how food additives affect human health. Often safety data is based on outdated testing methods or animal studies. The research found 64 percent of nearly 4,000 food additives had no research showing they were safe for people to eat or drink.
- We need congressional action that would give the FDA authority to review existing data on additives already on the market or to re-test their safety for people to eat.
- In the meantime, 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.