New studies into food additives suggest that many common chemicals used in food and food containers can be harmful to the growth and development of children.  

A recent policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advocates for revisiting the use of common food additives due to their potentially harmful effects. We spoke to Jason Yaun, MD, Le Bonheur Pediatrician, about the harm these chemicals can cause in children and precautions that parents can take.

What’s the problem?

Currently, many chemicals and additives are allowed in food products because they are designated as “generally safe” and therefore have no direct oversight from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The new AAP policy statement calls for the FDA to re-examine these chemicals and their effects on children.

What precautions can parents take?

Reducing exposure to these chemicals is not an exact science at present. “This information and data can certainly produce fear for well-meaning parents about the products their children come in to contact with every day,” said Dr. Yaun. “For now, some common-sense approaches may be used.”

When possible parents should:

  • Feed their children fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Avoid processed meats
  • Avoid microwaving plastics
  • Avoid placing plastic in the dishwasher
  • Encourage hand washing before all meals

Families can also find alternatives to plastics when possible and make sure to avoid plastics with the recycling codes 3, 6 and 7. Containers labeled as “biobased” or “greenware” are generally safe.

What chemicals cause harm?

The chemicals currently known to have harmful effects on children include:

  • Bisphenols
  • Phthalates
  • Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)
  • Perchlorate

These chemicals can be found in common food additives and food containers such as:

  • Lining of metal cans
  • Adhesives
  • Lubricants
  • Plasticizers
  • Grease-proof paper
  • Plastic packaging
  • Artificial food coloring

What are the effects of additives and chemicals on children?

Although adults consume the same chemicals, children are more likely to experience harm from chemical consumption. “Children are naturally at higher risk due to periods of rapid development and a relatively larger dose exposure due to their smaller size,” said Dr. Yaun. “This exposure early in life has the potential to cause serious harm that may have permanent effects.”  

A growing body of research shows that these chemicals may contribute to disease and disability in children. Some of the possible harmful effects on children include:

  • Endocrine disorders
  • Obesity
  • Cardiotoxicity
  • Immunosuppression
  • Cancer

How did we end up with chemicals in our food?

Why are these additives and chemicals in our food if they are harmful to children? Many chemicals used today were grandfathered in for use based on various amendments to the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act from 1938. For example, the Food Additives Amendment of 1958 allowed many chemicals to be added to food and food containers.  In addition once a chemical is allowed on the market, the FDA does not currently have the ability to reassess its safety.

In its new policy statement, the AAP recommends that these processes be revised allowing for more data collection, retesting of chemicals, an updated safety review process and updated labeling practices.