Think twice about food additives

What keeps our lunchmeat fresh, our yogurts brightly colored, and our plastic containers, well, plastic?

They’re known as additives, and more than 10,000 of them are used in foods we eat everyday and the containers we place food in.

And if the government’s approved them, they must be safe, right? Well…

In July, the American Academy of Pediatrics sent out a policy statement asking the U.S. government to make changes to how it approves the chemicals added to food because these chemicals can hurt our kids’ health.

“There are critical weaknesses in the current food additives regulatory process, which doesn’t do enough to ensure all chemicals added to foods are safe enough to be part of a family’s diet,” said Dr. Leonardo Trasande, MD, MPP, FAAP, an AAP Council on Environmental Health member and lead author of the policy statement. “As pediatricians, we’re especially concerned about significant gaps in data about the health effects of many of these chemicals on infants and children.”

The health risk of being exposed to these chemicals is higher in kids since they eat and drink more, relative to their body weight, than adults do—and because their bodies are still growing and developing.

And the impact? Well, it could be lifelong.

“Chemicals that affect the endocrine system, for example, can have lasting effects on a child since hormones coordinate complex functions throughout the body,” said Trasande. And that’s even just a small amount of those chemicals, if they happen at key moments during growth. All told, estimated health care costs tied to endocrine-disrupting chemicals are estimated to be roughly $340 billion.

What chemicals should we avoid?

The chemicals of most concern to the AAP include:

  • Bisphenols, such as BPA
    • Used to: Harden plastic containers and line metal cans
    • What it can do: It can act like estrogen in the body and potentially change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat, and affect the nervous and immune systems. BPA is now banned in baby bottles and sippy cups, but parents should continue to look for the words “BPA free” in other containers.
  • Phthalates
    • Used to: Make plastic and vinyl tubes used in industrial food production flexible.
    • What it can do: It may affect male genital development, increase childhood obesity, and contribute to cardiovascular disease. In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of some phthalates in child-care products such as teething rings.
  • Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)
    • Used in: Grease-proof paper and cardboard food packaging
    • What it can do: It may reduce immunity, birth weight, and fertility. Research also shows PFCs may affect the thyroid system, key to metabolism, digestion, muscle control, brain development, and bone strength.
  • Perchlorate
    • Used in: Some dry food packaging to control static electricity
    • What it can do: It is known to disrupt thyroid function, early life brain development and growth.
  • Artificial food colors
    • Used in: Common children’s food products
    • What it can do: It may be associated with worsened attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms. Studies cited in the report found a significant number of children who cut synthetic food colorings from their diets showed decreased ADHD symptoms.
  • Nitrates/nitrites
    • Used to: Preserve food and enhance color, especially in cured and processed meats.
    • What it can do: These chemicals can interfere with thyroid hormone production and the blood’s ability to deliver oxygen in the body. Nitrates and nitrites also have been linked with gastrointestinal and nervous system cancers.

Always read the labels.

Always reading labels is a great way to avoid feeding these chemicals to children, especially infants and toddlers.

But the easiest way is perhaps to go back to the basics. “The fewer the ingredients in a certain food item, the better,” said Andy Yurechko, a dietitian with Augusta University Health. “For example, just look at the ingredients in an apple from the produce section—just apple—compared to an apple pie you buy in that same store. You’ll likely see 20 to 30 ingredients, half of which you can’t pronounce.”

Fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean meats or beans should make up most of our daily diet—whether we’re children or adults. Yurechko also advocates for hormone-free milk and meat products whenever possible, to help reduce early puberty that’s been linked to milk or meat produced from animals that have been treated with hormones.

“It all comes down to the processing of food and also the frequency of use,” said Yurechko. “Is eating one hot dog from the fair, with nitrates, going to do anything? Probably not. But if your child is eating processed foods daily, that’s when we’re concerned.”

Wondering how to use the AAP’s recommendations?
The Children’s Hospital of Georgia’s Pediatric Heart Program offers registered dietitians as support for our patients and their families. Visit us at or call 706-664-0585 for more information.

About the author

Children's Hospital of Georgia

Children’s Hospital of Georgia is the only facility in the area dedicated exclusively to children. It staffs the largest team of pediatric specialists in the region who deliver out- and in- patient care for everything from common childhood illnesses to life-threatening conditions like heart disorders, cancer and neurological diseases.