Food additives and chemical contaminants found in food containers have long remained a mystery to parents. You may have heard that microwaving plastic containers and then eating out of them isn’t a good idea or that drinking out of plastic water bottles that have been steaming in your car could be harmful. But there’s never been a large, mainstream warning from health officials on either food additives or food containers.
But recently, a guidance from the American Academy of Pediatrics changed this. It warned of “growing evidence that some chemicals found in food colorings, preservatives and packaging materials may harm children’s health.” AAP called for urgently needed reforms to the U.S. food additive regulatory process. The organization points to a recent review, which found that of nearly 4,000 food additives, 64 percent of them had no research showing they were safe for people to eat or drink.
It’s scary for parents that may have no idea what’s in the some of the food their kids are eating and the containers that they come in. The ingredients are confusing and in materials like plastic, they’re not even listed. To help parents, we spoke with Dr. Misra Sudipta, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Summerville Medical Center.
“The basic problem with food additives is that there is not enough data on their safety,” says Dr. Sudipta. “Some additives do not have any data, some have only animal data and others have data on a limited number of humans. Unfortunately, lack of data has been taken as proof that additives are harmless. Safety reviews are mostly done by the manufacturer/user of the substance thereby raising the possibility of a conflict of interest. “
Q: What additives are the most concerning to pediatricians and why?
A: With food, especially in children, we tend to have a low threshold for a possible toxic effect. Even just a possibility that something in the food may be harmful for the child is stressful for parents. More money and time need to be spent by the FDA to independently study new and old additives to scientifically prove and reassure the public that these are safe to use.
Food colors, nitrates, nitrites, MSG are the common food additives that concern pediatricians.
Q: What chemicals are found in food containers and packaging?
A: Chemicals that contaminate foods and drinks from the containers and packaging include:
- Bisphenols found in containers made with polycarbonate plastic such as baby bottles, microwave ovenware, eating utensils and plastic coating for metal cans.
- Phthalates found in clear plastic food wraps and plastic tubing.
- Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) found in grease-resistant paper and paper board.
- Perchlorates found in food packaging, especially in dry foods.
- Polystyrenes (PS) used for making disposable cups and some toys.
- Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) used for wrapping meat, cheese and other groceries.
Q: What food containers are the safest for kids to eat and drink out of?
A: Containers made out of PET or PETE (polyethylene terephthalate) used for soft drinks, water, sports drinks, ketchup and salad dressing bottles and containers for peanut butter, jelly, pickles, etc. Also, those made with HDPE (high-density polyethylene) such as milk, juice and water bottles, yogurt and margarine tubes; glass containers; or stainless steel containers
Q: What about plastics that say they are BPA-free?
A: This labeling is a little deceptive. It does not disclose what the plastic is made of. There are other potentially harmful plastics other than BPA, such as phthalates, perfluoroalkyl, polystyrenes, etc.
Q: Why are food colorings concerning?
A: In small studies, food coloring have been associated with hyperactivity and ADHD. Some colors, especially blue 2 and red 3 also contain chemicals that can potentially cause cancer. Others can be contaminated with substances that can cause cancer. No large controlled studies are available in the literature to prove these preliminary observations.
Q: How can parents avoid food colorings?
A: Parents can cook with whole, unprocessed foods, which are more nutritious and healthy. They can also read food labels before buying to avoid food coloring.
Q: Why are nitrates concerning and where are they found?
Nitrites can morph into a chemical inside the body that has been shown to cause cancer. These are mostly found in cured and processed meat.
Q: How do these chemicals impact pregnant women?
A: There have been concerns that some of these chemicals can affect development of fetal reproductive organs and can cause hypothyroidism (low thyroid function) in the newborn baby.
Q: While parents can’t avoid all chemicals and additives, what can parents do to reduce their child’s exposure?
A: Avoid processed, canned or preserved food. Use fresh and whole fruits, meats and vegetables. Read the labels to avoid the harmful colors and chemicals listed above.