Additives, such as salt, have been used for thousands of years in order to keep foods from spoiling. Today, there are more than 10,000 food additives. Some are used directly in food for preservation or to modify their taste, look, texture, or nutrients. Others are used in the packaging in which foods are contained.
While these additives have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, there is evidence that some of these chemicals may be harmful to health. Children are particularly vulnerable to the negative effects of these chemicals because they have greater exposure to them than adults do, due to their smaller size (which means a greater dietary intake per pound) and the fact that their organs and detoxification systems are still developing.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has highlighted certain chemicals of concern they suggest may interfere with hormones, growth, and development in children.
Food Additives of Concern for Children
Bisphenol A (BPA)
Prevents rust on metal food and beverage cans
Can act like estrogen in the body and may change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and possibly affect the nervous and immune systems.
Makes plastic flexible for use in plastic tubing
Used in industrial food production
Can affect male genital development, increase childhood obesity and metabolic function, and may affect the cardiovascular system.
Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)
Creates grease-proof paper and cardboard in food packaging
Can reduce immune response, birth weight and fertility. May also cause changes to the thyroid hormone system, which is crucial for metabolism, digestion, muscle control, brain development, and bone strength
Controls static electricity in some dry food packaging
May interfere with thyroid hormone, affecting early life brain development and growth.
Synthetic artificial food colors (AFCs)
Helps improve the appearance of processed foods and beverages - common in children’s food products
Can sometimes act as a substitute for nutritious ingredients, such as in fruit drinks that contain little or actual fruit. May have effects on child behavior and attention.
Preservative and color enhancer - especially to cured and processed meats, fish, and cheese
Linked with tumors in the digestive and nervous systems, as well as thyroid problems. Can interfere with the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen in the body.
Limiting Your Child’s Exposure
While new research continues to clarify the connection between these chemicals and children’s health, there are steps that you can take to reduce your family’s exposures to these additives, and others.
Buy fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables whenever possible.
Limit (or avoid) eating processed meats such as hot dogs, ham and bacon, especially during pregnancy.
Avoid putting plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher. Heat can cause plastics to leak these chemicals into food. Instead wash plastic bottles and food containers by hand.
Use alternatives to plastics, such as glass and stainless steel, when possible.
Look at the recycling codes on plastic products - avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless they are labeled as "biobased" or "greenware," meaning they are made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.
Wash your hands thoroughly before handling food and wash all fruits and vegetables that can’t be peeled.
While we all live in the modern world and will undoubtedly consume products that contain additives, making a few small changes can greatly minimize your child’s exposure to the additives that have been specifically singled out by the AAP as posing the greatest risk to children’s health.
Reference: Trasande L, Shaffer RM, Sathyanarayana S; AAP COUNCIL ON ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH. Food Additives and Child Health. Pediatrics. 2018;142(2):e20181408.