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  • Denise Scott

Food Additives Kids Should Avoid

The last three decades have seen a surge in the chemicals added to our food. Plastics, preservatives, dyes, and sweeteners account for the majority. These are known as food additives. Most have not been studied and yet are approved.

I recently wrote on artificial sweeteners and food dyes. This article will cover those other food additives which are harmful to children and best to avoid.

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) wrote a policy statement on food additives and child health in 2018. They highlighted direct food additives (chemicals, colorings, flavorings, and preservatives) and items that contact food, such as those used in food packaging. The AAP wrote this after items, such as endocrine disruptors and their adverse effects on health, were discovered.

For more on endocrine disruptors, see the following articles:


Why is this particularly important for children?

Children may be more susceptible to the effects of these chemicals due to

  • Their smaller size, meaning they have a greater food intake per body weight than adults, thus a higher exposure

  • Their organs are still immature, so they may not be able to metabolize things as well

  • They are in a phase of rapid growth and still developing, thus more vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals.

Picture of a mother and son depicting the body mass difference between child and adult. This size difference allows for a greater exposure in children to additives and is not accounted for by the FDA.

The AAP also believed this was a step toward reforming how the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regulates and approves food additives. Infants and children are the most vulnerable to these exposures; unfortunately, studies on this population are absent. There is no consideration for the smaller size of children, nor their state of rapid growth and immature organs.

More than 10,000 chemicals are added to food or containers that can then indirectly enter the food. The list does not include environmental contaminants, such as from soil and water, but those chemicals purposely added in food or package processing.

The list of indirect food additives highlighted by the AAP (those occurring in food packaging) includes:

  • Bisphenols

  • Phthalates

  • Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)

  • Perchlorate

All of the above are considered endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

The direct food additives highlighted include

  • Nitrates

  • Nitrites

These preserve and enhance the color of processed meats, including packaged lunch meat, cured meats, and hot dogs.

Photo of hot dogs and cured meats which are sources of nitrates and nitrites.

Nitrates and nitrites play a role in cancer development and can interfere with thyroid function, acting as endocrine disruptors.

Additional additives to consider:

  • Sulfites - also sulfur dioxide, potassium bisulfite, sodium sulfite or sodium bisulfite

Sulfites are used as a preservative in some foods.

These compounds can trigger asthma attacks in those susceptible.

  • High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

This is a common sweetener made from corn with a high fructose content. It is found in many processed/snack foods, sodas, juices, candy, and cereals. 

HFCS has been linked to weight gain, insulin resistance, type 2 diabetes, and inflammation. It adds calories but no nutrition.

HFCS will soon have an article of its own.

The FDA approves many new food additives as GRAS - generally recognized as safe - however, these compounds are not studied for safety issues and certainly not in children. Thousands of these additives have no studies on their consumption. GRAS approval has become the way most new food additives enter the market.

Startling fact: 

Once an additive is GRAS, the FDA can no longer obtain studies or reassess its safety once on the market! There are known harmful, carcinogenic additives which have remained in use because of this.

Another problem:

Chemicals that act similarly in the same product or those that may produce a cumulative effect are not evaluated. There can be multiple additives in the same product having the same biological effect, most likely on the endocrine or hormone system. 

And another:

Guidelines are based on a set total exposure (usually measured in micrograms), not on exposure per body weight. In other words, a child and an adult can have the same total amount, BUT a child’s exposure is more significant due to their lower body weight. This difference is not accounted for.

Avoiding all exposures is impossible unless you live on a farm and grow all your food. There are ways to minimize exposure. 

Here is what the AAP recommends:

  1. Prioritize consuming fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables as much as possible.

  2. Avoid processed meats - pre-packaged lunch meat, cured meats such as pepperoni and salami, hot dogs, etc.

  3. Wash all fruits and vegetables

  4. Wash hands before eating or handling food

  5. Look for BPA-free canned goods and children’s toys, bottles, and sippy cups

Photo of an array of fresh fruit and vegetables. Fresh or frozen produce is preferable over canned or processed.

6. Don’t microwave any food or beverage in plastic containers and avoid putting plastic in the dishwasher

7. Check the recycling code on containers (inside the triangle of arrows) and avoid numbers

3 - phthalates

6 - styrene

7 - bisphenols

These apply to anything you eat, drink, or use on the skin.

The recycling triangle symbol. Check for numbers 3, 6, and 7 inside the triangle on containers to avoid endocrine disruptors from packaging.

8. Choose fragrance-free items for lotions, detergents, soaps, and cleaners.

9. Look for silicone rather than plastic toys

Additional recommendations include

Minimize ultra-processed foods in general

Read labels - the fewer the ingredients (five or fewer), the better. Especially avoid those items with ingredients you can’t pronounce or those not in your kitchen.

Look for the “Safer Choice” label designated by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) when choosing cleaning products.

Image of the safer choice label to look for when selecting cleaning products.

The AAP has also composed a list for policymakers and the FDA with recommendations to expand the scope of testing, revise the regulatory process, and retest additives already on the market. Sadly, we cannot rely on our government to keep us safe - we must educate ourselves.

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