There has been a growing concern in the health community about the chemical substances that are added to foods and found in food packaging. Recent studies suggest that some food additives are especially harmful to children. Certain chemicals could interfere with children’s health, hormonal balance and development. Some studies also link food additives to the sharp rise in childhood obesity rates in the last 40 years.
Thousands of additives are used in food products that have been presumed safe. These additives are used for many purposes, including flavor enhancement, coloring, preservatives and nutrients. Approximately 1000 additives are currently being used without any requirement for FDA approval.
Harmful additives are especially a concern for children because, since they eat and drink more in proportion to their body weight and they’re still growing, the substances have a greater impact on their health and growth. Some of the most harmful additives are described below.
Nitrates and nitrites
These chemicals are used as preservatives in many foods, particularly cured meats such as hot dogs and pepperoni. Nitrates and nitrites have been linked to some cancers and they can harm thyroid functioning.
Artificial food colors
Artificial colors are prevalent in food products that are marketed to children. These chemicals might worsen the symptoms of Attention Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Studies have shown that children with ADHD who had artificial colors removed from their diets experienced decreased symptoms of the disorder.
Bisphenols are chemicals used in plastic containers and the linings of some metal cans. BPA is a common example. These chemicals can have an effect similar to the hormone estrogen, which is the primary female sex hormone. Bisphenols can have a harmful impact on fertility, body fat gain, the immune system and the nervous system.
Phthalates are chemicals present in plastic and vinyl tubes that are used for food production. These chemicals may increase childhood obesity, cause cardiovascular problems and interfere with male genital development.
Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)
These chemicals are used in paper and cardboard packaging. They could have harmful effects on fertility, birth weight and the immune system.
This substance is used in some packaging to control static electricity. It can hinder early brain development and hinder thyroid function.
Government actions may take a while to regulate these harmful substances and remove them from products. In the meantime, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends the following steps to limit exposure to these substances:
- Eat fresh fruits and vegetables instead of processed foods.
- Avoid processed meats such as hot dogs, sausage, bacon, ham and salami. Pregnant women in particular should avoid these foods because of their nitrate and nitrite content.
- Avoid microwaving in plastic or placing plastic in the dishwasher because this causes the BPA in these containers to contaminate your food. Instead, microwave with glass containers or cook in stainless steel cookware.
- Try to avoid foods in plastic containers, unless they’re labeled as “greenware” or “biobased.”
- Wash your hands before touching food and wash vegetables and fruits that aren’t peeled to remove bacteria.
Because of the current political climate, efforts to remove harmful chemicals in foods and packaging are moving slowly. Real changes probably will not occur until significant congressional action takes place. In the meantime, parents need to take steps to protect their children’s health from these harmful substances.