Report: Common food additives may pose danger to kids

American Academy of Pediatrics calls for stronger U.S. safety measures toward chemicals used for food taste, processing, packaging.

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With growing evidence that chemicals in food colorings, preservatives, and packaging can interfere with children's growth and development, the American Academy of Pediatrics today said reforms are urgently needed to the U.S. food regulatory process. Its statement and technical report were published in the journal Pediatrics

The United States allows the use of more than 10,000 additives to modify foods' taste, appearance, texture or nutrients -- or which are involved in their packaging and processing, such as plastic, glues, dyes, paper, cardboard and coatings. Many chemicals were grandfathered in for approval during the 1950s, and roughly 1,000 additives are used under a “Generally Recognized as Safe” designation that does not require U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. 

Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a UW Medicine pediatrician and co-author of today's report, discusses the risks of food additives.

"The current regulatory process does not adequately protect children's health from these chemicals," said Dr. Sheela Sathyanarayana, a UW Medicine pediatrician and environmental scientist at the University of Washington (UW) School of Public Health.  "Bisphenol A and phthalates are known endocrine-disrupting chemicals, and we've learned that early life exposures can affect later-life health outcomes."

Sathyanarayana and Rachel Shaffer, a UW Ph.D. student in environmental toxicology, co-authored today's report with Dr. Leonardo Trasande, a New York University expert on children's environmental health. 

The additives of most concern, based on rising research evidence cited in the report, include:

  • Bisphenols, such as BPA, used to harden plastic containers and line metal cans, 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.
  • Phthalates, which makes plastic and vinyl tubes used in industrial food production flexible, 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, 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, added to some dry food packaging to control static electricity, is known to disrupt thyroid function, early life brain development and growth. 
  • Artificial food colors, common in children’s food products, 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 are used to preserve food and enhance color, especially in cured and processed meats. 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.

The paper was published to urge Congress to empower the FDA to collect more data about these chemicals than is now possible. 

"The FDA is in a tough position," said Sathyanarayana. "They have authority to collect data on current chemicals that have been grandfathered in [for approved use] but they do not have authority to collect additional data on those chemicals that have the determination of 'generally recognized as safe.'"

Families can take simple steps to limit exposures to the chemicals of greatest concern:

  • Buy and serve more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed meats – especially during pregnancy.  
  • Since heat can cause plastics to leak BPA and phthalates into food, avoid microwaving food or beverages, including infant formula and pumped human milk, in plastic when possible. Avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher.
  • Use alternatives to plastic, such as glass or stainless steel, when possible.
  • Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless they are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware.”
  • Wash hands thoroughly before and after touching food and clean all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled.

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