As I update this article, I'm reeling from the fact that a just released (2021) Congressional report found that many of the products made by the country’s largest commercial baby food manufacturers contain significant levels of toxic heavy metals, including arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury, which can endanger infant neurological development.
Researchers found heavy metals in rice cereals, sweet potato puree, juices and sweet snack puffs made by some of the most trusted names in baby food – and we're not just talking Gerber here, folks. Gerber, Beech-Nut, HappyBABY and Earth’s Best Organic baby foods contained arsenic, lead, cadmium and mercury.
Among the chemicals that raised concern are nitrates and nitrites, which are used as preservatives, primarily in meat products; phthalates, which are used to make plastic packaging; and bisphenols, used in the lining of metal cans for canned food products. Also of concern to the pediatricians are perfluoroalkyl chemicals, or PFCs, used in grease-proof paper and packaging, and perchlorates, an antistatic agent used in plastic packaging.
This follows not too many years after the American Academy of Pediatrics issued the guidelines in a statement and scientific technical report expressing concern about the growing body of scientific evidence indicating that certain chemicals that enter foods may interfere with the body’s natural hormones in ways that may affect long-term growth and development.
Yes, It's Scary, But You're Fierce
I, along with other integrative health practitioners, have been sounding the alarm on the dangers of food additives for children's health for decades – and now, it's become clearer than ever that we need to do more to protect our kids from chemical exposure.
As we dive into this topic, I just want to touch on the fact that I know this is SCARY stuff. As a mother and grandmother myself, I feel you. My goal isn't to scare you, but rather, to give you the tools and information you need to make informed and empowered choices for yourself and your family (and your community) when it comes to avoiding food additives and lowering chemical exposure in children. Below, I'm sharing some tips I've developed over the years with my own kids and grandkids, as well as in my medical practice to help you avoid food additives and protect your children's health. We're in this together!
What Do We Mean by Food Additives?
What I refer to with this term is the whole set of artificial colorings, flavorings, and chemicals added to food during processing, which are known as “direct food additives”, but there's also a whole category of “indirect food additives” we tend to forget about: think adhesives, dyes, coatings, paper, paperboard, plastic, and other polymers, which are introduced to foods during the manufacturing process and through food packaging. Some food additives of concern are bisphenols, phthalates, PFCs, food colors, nitrates, and nitrites – but there are obviously a lot more.
Today, your body is dealing with more than 10,000 food additive chemicals, all of which are allowed to be added (directly or indirectly) to food and food contact materials in the United States. And that's only the chemicals allowed to be in your food!
Many of these chemicals have not been proven safe for children, and in fact were ‘grandfathered in’ with little human safety data in general. Shockingly, due to the way new additives are reviewed, a 2010 review concluded that FDA simply cannot guarantee the safety of most ingredients, which we now know can affect our health at nanoparticle doses – much lower than was previously expected – and the FDA does not have authority to obtain data on or reassess the safety of chemicals already on the market. Additionally, conflicts of interest with industry, prevent adequate and accurate safety data from ever being acquired or seeing the light of day.
How Food Additives Affect Our Children
Common food additives (in concentrations most of us deal with in daily life) are linked with: endocrine disruption, insulin resistance, reduced immune response, thyroid hormone alterations, and neonatal hypothyroidism. Here's what we know: the health dangers of food additives are especially high during pregnancy, infancy, early childhood, and even through the teenage years when the lungs, endocrine, and nervous systems are still developing.
Children are naturally more vulnerable to the effects of food additives because of their surface area-to-body weight ratio and immature detoxification abilities. The potential for endocrine system disruption from food additives and chemical exposure is bigger in children than for us grown ups, and carries a risk of permanent and lifelong imbalances.
The potential for endocrine system disruption from food additives and chemical exposure is bigger in children than for us grown ups, and carries a risk of permanent and lifelong imbalances.
No wonder we've seen such a spike in health concerns in children and women over the three decades during the time our volume of our exposure has also escalated. I certainly see it reflected in my medical practice: children suffering from anxiety, depression, obesity, autoimmune diseases, early puberty, and so much more, all of which was mostly unheard of only a few decades ago!
You can read more about protecting children for chemical exposures here. I also talk about the concept of body burden and toxic exposure (plus how you can reduce it for yourself and your family), here and in this important interview with Dr. Philip Landrigan, a pediatric environmental medicine pioneer.
What Can I Do Today to Protect My Kids?
Here's what you can do starting right now to avoid food additives to support your children's health. The encouraging news is that previous studies have shown that these changes can make a difference in children's blood levels of environmental toxins in as little as three days.
Don't Compromise – Eat “Clean & Green”
In the context of food additives and their effects on children, we really do have to prioritize fresh or frozen fruits and veggies rather than packaged, and local and organic as much as possible to avoid contaminants. The Environmental Working Group Clean 15 and Dirty Dozen is an easy chart for making choices when it comes to organic vs. conventional produce.
It's also essential to avoid all processed animal products including meat and dairy, and consume only organic dairy products as dairy holds onto a great deal of environmental toxins
Encourage hand-washing before handling foods and/or drinks, and wash all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.
Keep in mind, good nutrition boosts your child’s immunity and supports natural detoxification.
Avoid processed meats, which are heavy in nitrates and nitrites, as well as canned foods (metal cans are lined with bisphenols to prevent corrosion… except then you're left with contaminated food).
Use Safe Food Storage Containers
Some lifestyle habits can help reduce exposure to food additives and other harmful chemicals involved with food preparation and handling. Mostly, it all comes down to avoiding plastic as best you can. Most plastic containers leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals into your food and beverages. Replace plastic containers with stainless steel or glass alternatives as much as possible. The same goes for plastic water bottles – I personally use Mason jars or Kleen Canteen bottles which are practically unbreakable (I’ve had the same one for over a decade and have dropped it onto concrete several times!). They make kids drinking bottles with sippy spouts in fun colors!
If you do use plastic containers and bottles, follow these simple steps to minimize their health risk: don't use them to heat foods or liquids in the microwave, and wash them by hands rather than in the dishwasher.
Finally, check out the recycling codes on your plastic containers before you purchase food items, to find the plastic type, and avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless plastics are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware,” indicating that they are made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.
This one might be hard. Speaking up for yourself and for your kids might earn you a few side glares. Your kids might even call you mean if you refuse them certain “treats,” and other adults might make their opinion quite clear when they think you're “overreacting,” and that a few food additives never hurt anybody… UGH! But learning to trust your instincts and learning to say “no” is an essential part of reclaiming our health and the health of our children and our children's children.
Reforms to the current regulatory process at the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for food additives are urgently needed. The fact is that our government institutions are failing to protect us and our children when it comes to food additive regulations – and this is especially true among minority and low-income populations, who are disproportionately affected by the adverse health effects of chemical exposure.
As mothers, we do have the power to change things – and it starts right in our homes!
“AAP-Says-Some-Common-Food-Additives-May-Pose-Health-Risks-to-Children.” Site Title, www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/pages/AAP-Says-Some-Common-Food-Additives-May-Pose-Health-Risks-to-Children.aspx.
Lu, Chensheng, et al. “Organic Diets Significantly Lower Children’s Dietary Exposure to Organophosphorus Pesticides.” Environmental Health Perspectives, vol. 114, no. 2, Jan. 2006, pp. 260–263., doi:10.1289/ehp.8418.
Rotkin-Ellman, Miriam, and Veena Singla. “EPA: Toxic Pesticide on Fruits, Veggies Puts Kids at Risk.” NRDC, 31 Jan. 2018, www.nrdc.org/experts/miriam-rotkin-ellman/epa-toxic-pesticide-fruitsveggies-puts-kids-risk.