Take a look at the food labels in your kitchen cupboards or pantry and you’ll likely spot additives—chemicals found in pre-packaged foods that are used to enhance the flavor, appearance or texture of a product, or to extend its shelf life.
There are more than 10,000 additives to preserve and package food that have been approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, increasing evidence suggests some chemicals used as food additives should be avoided, especially by children.
“The American Academy of Pediatrics is encouraging all of us parents to think hard about what’s in our food and to read labels,” says Dr Pilar Bradshaw. “Before we put food in our kids’ bodies, look at the labels and make sure you recognize the ingredients.”
Common food additives include:
- Artificial colorings and flavorings
- Thickeners and binders
- High fructose corn syrup
- Artificial sweeteners
While some food additives can be consumed with minimal risk, the American Academy of Pediatrics says a number of studies suggest some food additives may interfere with hormones, growth and development in children.
“Doctors for people of all ages in the U.S. are now recognizing that some of the chemicals in our foods are really unhealthy for us,” Dr. Bradshaw says.
What’s a parent to do?
To help reduce your family’s consumption of food additives, Dr. Bradshaw encourages families to shop for the bulk of their food along the outer edges of the grocery store, where fresh, single-ingredient foods are typically found, such as produce, dairy and meat. Aim for buying fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables over canned options and limit processed meats.
You can also make simple swaps, like making air-popped popcorn in place of microwaved popcorn, swapping block cheese for pre-packaged shredded cheese, and choosing plain chips and crackers more often than flavored options.
Dr. Bradshaw recognizes that eating healthy can cost more and requires more prep time, but she encourages families to make changes where they can. “It’s all about balance, so everything doesn’t have to be homemade or fresh, but the majority of our kids’ diet should be.”
Direct vs. indirect food additives
Direct food additives are those that are added to a food for a specific purpose, such as influencing taste or texture or to give it a longer shelf life. Indirect food additives are those that become part of the food in trace amounts due to its packaging, storage or other handling.
To reduce exposure to indirect additives:
- Wash plastic food containers and utensils by hand, rather than in the dishwasher. Heat can cause plastics to leak BPA and phthalates into food.
- Avoid microwaving food or beverages, including infant formula and breastmilk, in plastic, if possible.
- When cooking or serving hot foods, use alternatives to plastic, such as glass or stainless steel.
- Wash your hands thoroughly to remove any traces of chemicals you may encounter while touching common items made of plastic, especially before handling food.
Learn to identify the recycling code on the bottom of products and try to avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene) and 7 (bisphenols) unless plastics are labeled as “biobased” or “greenware,” which means they are made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.
Find additional information on food additives here.