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Pediatricians sound alarm about food additives and children's health

There’s growing concern about how the 10,000 chemicals allowed in food and food packaging could affect kids' hormones and development.
Child's lunch in plastic container
Chemicals in plastic containers are one source of concern for doctors.Shutterstock
/ Source: TODAY

When children ingest chemicals added to food and food packaging, their health may suffer, the American Academy of Pediatrics warns in a new policy statement, advising parents to be cautious about plastic containers, avoid processed meats and take other steps to limit kids’ exposure to food additives.

U.S. regulations currently allow more than 10,000 chemicals to be used in food and the materials that come in contact with it, noted the statement published in the August issue of Pediatrics. But there’s growing concern some of these substances could affect a child’s hormones and development.

Kids may be particularly susceptible because their dose of exposure is higher than that of adults, said lead author Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an expert in children's environmental health and associate professor at the NYU School of Medicine.

“Pound for pound, they eat more food” relative to their body weight, Trasande told TODAY. “Also, their organ systems are susceptible to injury during early development. The effects of an injury can be permanent and life-long.”

The report represents the accumulation of two decades of scientific research documenting increasing evidence about the effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals on children’s health, Trasande said. That’s of great concern because practically every human physiologic function has some endocrine basis, he added.

“The research really does show that (the chemicals) can cause health problems, some of which could be very serious. And because the exposure is small and gradual, we don’t even realize it’s happening,” said Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School.

There’s no question that babies and children may be more vulnerable to the effects of toxins as their bodies, organs and minds form, added Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson, a pediatrician at Seattle Children's Hospital.

The chemicals of concern:

The report focused on six additives and their potential health effects, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics:

Bisphenols, like BPA, which are used to harden plastic containers and line metal cans. They can mimic estrogen and may change the timing of puberty, decrease fertility, increase body fat and affect the nervous and immune systems.

Phthalates, which make plastic and vinyl tubes flexible. They may affect male genital development, increase childhood obesity and contribute to heart disease.

Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs), which are used in grease-proof paper and cardboard food packaging. They may reduce immunity, birth weight and fertility.

Perchlorate, which is added to some dry food packaging to control static electricity. It can disrupt thyroid function, early life brain development and growth.

Artificial food colors, which may worsen attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) symptoms.

Nitrates, which are used to preserve food and enhance color in cured and processed meats. They can interfere with thyroid hormone production and the blood's ability to deliver oxygen in the body.

Changes to make now:

There’s no way to completely avoid food additives, but there are ways to reduce kids’ exposure, Swanson noted: “Don't freak out — we can't control everything — but do decrease your use of plastics as much as you can,” she advised parents.

Here are some tips from the AAP, which represents 67,000 pediatricians:

Eat fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, and avoid processed meats, especially during pregnancy. “The less we process our food, the better. The less our food travels in packaging, the better, too,” Swanson said.

Avoid microwaving food or beverages in plastic — including infant formula and pumped human milk — because heat can cause chemicals to leach into food. Don’t put plastic containers in the dishwasher for the same reason. If you still want to serve food to your children on plastic dishes, consider heating it in glass containers first, Swanson advised.

Use glass or stainless steel containers when possible. “We’re so used to plastic that it doesn’t even occur to us to use other materials,” McCarthy noted. There’s no need for plastic serving tools ever, Swanson added. Metal plates, bamboo, aluminum are some options to consider.

Avoid canned foods. Canned food is a major source of bisphenol exposure, Trasande said.

If still opting for plastic, check the recycling code on a container’s bottom to find the plastic type. Avoid containers with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless they’re labeled as “biobased” or “greenware.”

Reduce the use of plastic wrap when possible. You can use wax paper or aluminum foil to wrap a child’s sandwich, Trasande noted.

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