Wednesday, March 29, 2023

These food-grade chemicals may harm children

American Academy of Pediatricians (AAP), the association of child specialists in the USA, recently issued a guideline statement and a scientific report on various food-grade chemicals and their effects on long-term development and growth in children. There are numerous take-home messages for every parent, in both the documents. We will discuss them below.

Food additives

Modern life brings us, and our children, in contact with many new materials which never existed in our human history. Some of these are added to the processed foods that we eat, while some others come in contact with our food.

The Synthetic additives such as flavourings, colourings, and preservatives are directly added into the processed foods. So, they are called direct food additives.

Substances that come in contact with food while processing, storage or delivery, are called indirect food additives. Such chemicals are coatings, dyes, wrapping papers, styrofoam (or thermocol), adhesives, paperboards, plastics, and other polymers.

Why children are vulnerable?

Over the last few years, new reports are emerging about the harm caused by food additives. Predominant damages observed are hormonal changes (called endocrine disruptions) and growth problems.

Not all of these chemicals are extensively tested for toxicity. And even if they are, their long term effect on children are not studied well.

Children, especially infants, are far more vulnerable to these toxins since their body’s defense systems are not fully developed. Children consume more food per kg of body weight than adults. So their exposure to food additives is relatively higher. Plus, children’s key organs are still developing. So any hormonal disruptions can cause improper growth of those organs.

Legal Loopholes

While there are government agencies that regulate use of food additives, the concerning laws have many shortcomings.

A special category permitted is ‘Generally recognised as safe (GRAS)’. This designation does not apply well to food additives that affect children. Also, the safety data about these additives is either missing or incomplete, when it comes to their exposure to children.

Incidentally, the paper points out that out of the most recent 451 GRAS evaluations voluntarily submitted for approval, every single one was made by either the manufacturer, or a consultancy firm hired by the manufacturer. None were done by a third party. So much for a conflict of interest.

In other words, AAP cautions that a parent should not remain off–guard assuming the regulatory bodies are doing their job properly and the children are protected and safe, as a result.

If this is the situation in one of the most developed countries, one can only wonder what must be the situation in the developing world, where safety standards are even more compromised, due to costs, corruption, and lack of awareness.

And while we are at it, remember that even the adults face similar issues with the same products, albeit with a lesser intensity.

Problems with food additives

AAP distinguished between the chemicals that enter the foods inadvertently, and those that are put in contact with food by choice.

Accidental or inadvertent additives are of a more serious concern, since they are not even meant to come in contact with food. Examples include pesticides (such as DDT), heavy metals (such as mercury), aflatoxins, polychlorinated biphenyls, dioxins, ingredients of sprays and aerosols, household cleaners and utility items such as plastic bags, colouring paints and toys.

However, the AAP report chose to focus on the additives that are designed to come in contact with food. There are more than 10,000 such chemicals approved for use as food additives. That itself is a big gamut to worry about.

Indirect food additives


Bisphenols are used in the lining of metal cans to prevent corrosion. They are also used for making plastic bottles. Earlier, bisphenol A (BPA) was used. However, after an outcry about its side effects, the manufacturers started using Bisphenol S, instead of BPA, for use in plastic bottles. Unfortunately, the toxicity profile of Bisphenol S is similar to that of BPA. And, the linings of metal cans are still done using BPA.

Bisphenols change the age of puberty, affect breast development, reduce fertility, and lead to some kinds of cancerous growth. They have been associated with growth retardation in fetuses, conversion of normal cells into fat cells, and childhood obesity. They also affect the working of the pancreas.


Phthalates are used in adhesives, lubricants, shampoos, lotions, cosmetics, vinyl flooring, plasticizers, food cling–wraps, and plastic packaging of foods.

They cause inflammation and insulin resistance (that can lead to diabetes), and retard male fetal reproductive development.


Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs) are used in making grease-proof paper and packaging.

They cause reduced immune response to vaccines, low birth weight, decreased fertility, and thyroid hormone alternations.


Perchlorates enter our food chain through water contamination, or as a part of nitrate fertilizers. They are used as antistatic agents for plastic packaging of dry foods, such as sugar and flour.

They disrupt thyroid hormone, and so, may cause childhood hypothyroidism and poor growth. Since the thyroid hormone is important for the early life cognitive development, the child can develop lifelong brain problems. Infants can get exposure to perchlorates if they are used in the packaging material for the infant powdered formula.

Direct food additives

Artificial food colours

Synthetic food colours are added to make foods and drinks more attractive.

These colours worsen the ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder) symptoms in children. Some of the food colours are known to cross the blood—brain barrier, which makes them particularly risky.

Nitrates and nitrites

These are used as preservatives in cured and processed meats, fish, and cheese.

They are not carcinogenic themselves, but they react with other compounds to form cancer–causing N-Nitroso compounds (NOCs) in the body. This elevates the risk of gastrointestinal and neural cancers. If a pregnant woman eats a lot of nitrite–cured meats, there is an increased risk of brain tumour in the baby.

Incidentally, in 2015, the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified processed meats as ‘cancer-causing to humans’ (Group 1). Processed meat are also linked with colorectal cancer.

Nitrates can interfere with thyroid hormone production and affect iodine absorption. This can lead to growth retardation. If a pregnant woman faces thyroid disruption due to nitrates, her baby can face lifelong problems with brain health.

In recent years, organic and natural substitutes, such as celery powder, are used in place of nitrates and nitrite preservatives. But such products have even higher levels of nitrites and nitrates than the traditional preservatives.

AAP guidelines, in conclusion

Encourage children to eat fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.

Wash all fruits and vegetables that cannot be peeled, such as grapes, pears, peaches, etc.

Wash hands before handling foods and drinks.

Avoid processed meats, especially during pregnancy.

Avoid microwaving food or liquids in plastic containers.

Avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher.

Use glass or stainless steel, instead of plastic, whenever possible.

Look for the recycling code on the bottom of the plastic products. Unfortunately, many countries have different recycling or plastics codes. For example, China has 140 codes, while many countries have 7 or less. If we were to stick to the most common classification used around the world, avoid plastic products with codes #3 (PVC, contains phthalates), #6 (PS or polystyrene, contains styrofoam or thermocol), and #7 (others, contains BPA or Bisphenol S). For a detailed explanation on which plastics to avoid and why, read: How to recognise hazardous plastics.

First published on: 24th July, 2018


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