As parents, we want the food we feed our kids to be as safe as possible, and the American Academy of Pediatrics wants that, too.
That's why the AAP just released a new policy statement calling for changes in regulatory processes at the FDA when it comes to deciding if food additives are safe, and urging parents to take precautions until policymakers catch up with pediatricians.
"More than 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food in the U.S., but the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is unable to ensure all of those chemicals are safe," writes Dr. Leonardo Trasande, the lead author of the AAP's policy statement and technical report on the subject.
Trasande and his colleagues are concerned about colorings, flavorings and chemicals deliberately added to processed food, as well as things that are indirectly added through their use in packaging or the manufacturing process. This includes substances, like nitrates, which are used as preservatives or for food coloring, and bisphenols found in the linings of canned food and in plastic containers, as well as phthalates used in plastic food wraps and perfluoroalkyl, which is found in grease-proof paper.
"Children are particularly vulnerable to the effects of chemicals added to foods because they eat more per pound than adults, and their developing organ systems may be susceptible. The greatest concerns are about the effects of these chemicals on the endocrine system; hormones act on all parts of the body, and even small disruptions at key moments in development can have permanent and lifelong consequences," says Trasande.
The substances the AAP is concerned about have been linked to serious health issues. Bisphenols are associated with obesity and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder. Phthalates "are known to affect male reproductive development". Perfluoroalkyl is linked to decreased birth weight, and nitrates are linked to cancer.
In short, the AAP has a lot of concerns about the food our kids are eating and says regulation around our food supply is simply inadequate.
"Current requirements for a 'generally recognized as safe (GRAS) designation are insufficient to ensure the safety of food additives and do not contain sufficient protections against conflicts of interest. Additionally, the FDA does not have adequate authority to acquire data on chemicals on the market or reassess their safety for human health. These are critical weaknesses in the current regulatory system for food additives," Trasande and his colleagues note in the policy statement.
The AAP is advocating for a modernization of the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act and changes to FDA policy to protect children from the adverse health effects of additives. This is particularly important for minority and low-income families, as the AAP says "exposure to these chemicals is disproportionate" among these populations.
Regulatory change may be a long time coming, but parents can make changes right now to protect kids, and you don't have to memorize a list of unhealthy additives or become a chemist to make your pantry safer.
Change the way you shop
Sticking to the perimeter of the grocery store and avoiding the center aisles can help families avoid additives, according to the Mayo Clinic health educator Katie Johnson.
"For people concerned about chemicals and preservatives in their diet, the perimeter if often a great place to shop. Many produce, meat and dairy items have fewer preservatives than those on the shelf," but she cautions this isn't true 100% of the time, so shoppers should still take care to avoid processed items that may be mixed in with the fresh meat and veggies (hello, hot dogs).
Ditch canned food
Shopping the perimeter is one way to avoid the canned food aisle. A generation ago a can or green beans or corn was the go-to side vegetable for many families at dinner time, but the AAP wants today's moms and dads to to switch to fresh or frozen vegetables (and fruits) instead of canned whenever possible to avoid Bisphenols.
The AAP recognizes that this can be hard for some families as fresh produce is more expensive, so the AAP is asking it's members to develop lists of low-cost sources for fresh fruits and vegetables. If cost is a barrier, check with your pediatrician to see if they have a local list ready. Farmers' markets and community supported agriculture programs can also be great ways to get produce for less than supermarket prices.
Avoid processed meats
Choosing unprocessed meats is the best bet for avoiding additives (especially nitrates), and pregnant women should take extra care to avoid the processed meat products, like hot dogs and chicken nuggets.
Don't put plastics in the microwave or dishwasher
The AAP suggests parents "avoid microwaving food or beverages (including infant formula and pumped human milk) in plastic, if possible", don't put plastics in the dishwasher, and use containers made from alternative materials like glass or stainless steel whenever possible. According to the AAP, "heat can cause plastics to leak BPA and phthalates into food". If you really need a plastic container, check the recycling code on the bottom and avoid codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols), and choose ones labeled as "biobased" or "greenware" instead.
It would take congressional action for the AAP's regulatory suggestions to be put in place, but we can take our own action by making smarter choices at the grocery store and in our kitchens.
[Update, August 30, 2018: Added a line to the last paragraph to further clarify. "According to the AAP, "heat can cause plastics to leak BPA and phthalates into food".]