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Food additives

What parents need to know about food additives

On busy days — and what days aren’t busy — getting three square meals into kids’ growing bodies can be challenging enough. Of course, what we include in those meals is also something we need to keep in mind.

As a dietitian, I discuss not only the food we put into our bodies, but also the compounds that are added to some foods and food packaging that should be avoided based on recent recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

There are more than 10,000 additives approved for use in the United States that help preserve, package or change the taste, color or texture of foods. Growing evidence shows that some of these additives can have potentially harmful effects, including interfering with hormones and normal growth and development in children. They may even contribute to disease and disability. Children are often more susceptible to the effect of these chemicals given that they have a greater dietary intake per pound of body weight compared to adults.

Choose fresh over processed

Processed and cured meats often contain nitrates and nitrites. These ingredients can affect the thyroid gland’s ability to produce hormones and the ability of the blood to circulate oxygen throughout the body.

From cereals to cookies to yogurt, many foods marketed for kids contain artificial colors. These additives may be associated with worsened ADHD symptoms and are common in kid’s food products.

It’s important to pay attention to the food’s packaging, as well. Grease-proof paper and cardboard food packaging use perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) that may decrease our ability to fight off illness, as well as reduce birth weight and fertility. Chemical added to some dry food packaging, such as PFC and perchlorate, have been shown to alter thyroid function. This affects the normal functioning and development of several organs, including the brain, and strengthening of the bones.

Be careful with plastics

Avoid plastic products with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene) and 7 (bisphenols, like BPA). These plastics have been shown to release potentially harmful byproducts into foods and beverages. Plastics labeled “biobased” or “greenware” are safe to use. Additionally, BPA has been banned in baby bottles and sippy cups, so these products are safe to use.

Heat can cause plastics to leak BPA and phthalates into our food, so avoid microwaving food in plastic containers. When consumed, these ingredients can cause insulin resistance, lead to an increase in body fat, affect the onset of puberty, reduce fertility and affect the nervous and immune systems. Instead of using plastic plates, bowls, and containers, microwave food in glass containers or cook on the stove or in the oven. Also, avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher.

As with most things food-related, moderation is key. Should parents worry if they don’t follow these guidelines every time? No. But keeping these recommendations in mind and being aware of ingredients in foods and containers is important as we continue to improve food safety for our kids.

If you have questions about healthy eating or food additives, talk to your pediatrician or a registered dietitian.