SEATTLE -- There are more than 10,000 chemicals allowed to be added to our food. Some of them are harmless; some we don’t know the effects of, and others have been studied and show they can cause serious health risks to children and adults.
A report published in the journal Pediatrics looks into the effects of additives like food coloring, nitrates, nitrites and BPAs, among other things, and their effect on health.
“Alright kiddos,” says mom Rebecca Raney as she gets the oven preheated to start baking cupcakes with her kids and their friends during an afternoon playdate.
The mix, marketing to kids, is filled with colored sprinkles, dyes and a bunch of other additives.
“Put in the cake batter, then oil, water and eggs,” guides mom Raney.
These ingredients and the effects on child health is what pediatrician Sheela Sathyanarayana with UW Medicine and Children’s Hospital has been looking into.
“Children are not little adults, they have developing brains and developing organ systems. If you affect those at very early ages it can have lifelong consequences,” said Sathyanarayana.
Her report, published in the journal Pediatrics, shows, among other things, the harmful effects of food coloring, which has increased fivefold and in American food products over the past six decades.
The report says food coloring may be associated with worsened ADHD and studies cites say those children who cut out synthetic food coloring showed decreased ADHD symptoms.
Even though a developing child’s health is most susceptible to adverse effects of food additives, adults are also affected. 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.
“Even the endocrine disrupting chemicals have been associated with things like endometriosis, testicular cancer,” said Sathyanarayana.
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.
At the Raneys, mom Rebecca says she’s as vigilant as she can be.
“As a mom, it makes me almost more upset that companies are allowed to put that stuff in the food for kids and us,” she said.
The report doesn’t just cover what’s in your food, but what’s around your food. 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.
“The easiest thing to do is transfer food from plastic to glass or ceramic, then heat it. As long as you’re not heating plastics,” said Sathyanarayana.
Heating the plastics lets those loosely bound chemicals seep into your food.
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.
For Raney, changing out plastics to glass is a switch she’s slowly making.
“I’ve tried to switch a lot of it over to glass. We’ve got the glass bowls that we store in but we definitely have the plastic containers too,” said Raney.
It’s these small changes that can make big impacts on health.
“I wish I had a little more time to make everything fresh and not relay on store-bought, but life is so busy,” said Raney.
But even the doctors say colored cupcakes, occasionally, is just fine.
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.