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We’ve all been faced with the occasional pastel blue frosting, neon yellow popcorn, or intensely pink yogurt. If you have children, you might feel like the availability of colorful and fake foods is endless. Saying no to food additives is something the teachers and graduates of NTI have advocated for decades. But now? Now the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is bringing the issue to public awareness. In a policy statement, issued in August of 2018, the AAP called out the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for their regulatory pitfalls and warned pediatricians and parents about the risks of food additives.
If you think that turning down artificially-colored and cellophane-wrapped snacks is for tree huggers and idealists, think again. The policy statement from the AAP may turn this small act of resistance into the status quo. Let’s take a look at what the AAP had to say and how we can use the information to make better food choices for ourselves and our families.
6 Dangerous Food Additives
After a comprehensive review of the research, the AAP identified 6 food additives that pose the greatest risks for children’s health. Four of the top offenders are “indirect” food additives, meaning they might contaminate the food because of packaging or the manufacturing process. The other two compounds are “direct” food additives, meaning they are intentionally added as ingredients. Here are the top six most dangerous food additives for children, according to the AAP:
1. Bisphenol A (BPA)
BPA is a chemical that is used in some plastics and to line the inside of canned foods. BPA is called a hormone-disrupting chemical (also called an endocrine disruptor). More specifically, BPA mimics the function of estrogen and is therefore called a “xenoestrogen.” Studies suggest that BPA interferes with sperm function and might increase the risks of obesity and autoimmune disease.
Phthalates are found in adhesives or lubricants that are used in the manufacturing of processed foods. Like BPA, phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that might be associated with male infertility and obesity.
3. Perfluoroalkyl Chemicals (PFCs)
PFCs are used to repel grease from papers and packaging. Studies show that children with higher exposure to PFCs mount less of an antibody reaction to childhood vaccines. A survey of thousands of people across the United States found that higher blood levels of PFCs were associated with more thyroid disease in US adults.
Perchlorate is used to repel static from plastic packaging that holds dry foods. Similar to the chemicals listed above, perchlorate is known to disrupt thyroid function.
5. Artificial Colors
Artificial food dyes are ingredients added to foods ranging from candies to instant oatmeal to salad dressings. The AAP states that artificial colors might be associated with attention-deficit disorder (ADD) or attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Some food dyes—red 40, yellow 5, and yellow 6—are also known carcinogens.
6. Nitrates and Nitrites
Nitrates and nitrites are preservatives used in processed meats, like sausage, bacon, hot dogs, and lunch meats. Once ingested, these compounds can transform into cancer-causing compounds in the body.
Food additives pose a greater health risk to children than adults for several reasons. The mere fact of children being smaller than adults exposes them to higher relative amounts of food additives. If a child and an adult each eat a cupcake, for example, the exposure to blue food dye in the icing will be more per body weight in the child. Also, children’s metabolic and detoxification systems are still developing, making them less efficient at clearing unwanted chemicals from their bodies. And finally, organs like the thyroid gland, ovaries, and testes, which regulate hormones and metabolism, develop throughout childhood. If children are exposed to hormone-disrupting chemicals during critical periods of development, it could have lifelong consequences.
Why Dangerous Food Additives Aren’t Banned
More than 10,000 chemicals are currently allowed in foods or food packaging in the United States. About 1000 of these are categorized as “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS). The GRAS designation is the process by which almost all new food additives now enter the market. But the authors of the AAP policy statement explain that the FDA doesn’t have enough authority to review GRAS additives for safety effectively. They say that the requirements for GRAS designation are “insufficient to ensure the safety of food additives and do not contain sufficient protections against conflict of interest.”
The authors of the AAP policy statement also call out other pitfalls in the FDA regulation of food additives. For example, the FDA doesn’t have the authority to evaluate the safety of food additives already on the market. Some ingredients remain on grocery store shelves even if they have recently been classified as human carcinogens. Also, synergistic effects of multiple food additives are never evaluated in safety research. Most processed foods contain a concoction of many additives, but their interactions have never been assessed. The AAP statement makes several recommendations for how governmental officials could improve the oversight of food additives.
How to Avoid Food Additives
The AAP policy statement includes a short list of ways people can reduce their exposure to dangerous food additives:
- Focus on eating fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables
- Avoid processed meats
- Don’t microwave food or drinks in plastic
- Don’t wash plastic in the dishwasher
- Use glass or stainless steel instead of plastic
- If using plastic, avoid those with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (BPA)
- Wash hands before handling food and drinks, and wash all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled
There are a few more suggestions we routinely teach at NTI. When purchasing processed or packaged foods, read the list of ingredients carefully. Choose products that have shorter ingredient lists and ingredients you can pronounce. If a product contains a long list of unpronounceable ingredients, the chances are high that many of those are unwanted food additives. Choosing organic foods is another way to decrease the odds of consuming dangerous additives. And lastly, stick to the perimeter of the grocery store. The perimeter is where you will find the produce, dairy, meats, and bakery. Most of the packaged and processed foods are in the middle aisles.
At NTI, we believe that education is power. The more knowledgeable people become about their food, the more control they have over their health. Food additives are a concern for everyone, but especially for children. Please share this article with other adults you know who have children of their own, have children in their extended family, work with children, or care about children in any way.
By Sarah Cook, ND, instructor at NTI
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