Three young kids eating lunch

Certain chemicals added to food and also used in food packaging have been linked to a suite of negative health effects, and children may be most at risk. That’s according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), published yesterday in the journal Pediatrics.

“Parents are right to worry about what they feed their kids, especially when it’s prepackaged,” says James E. Rogers, Ph.D., director of food-safety research and testing at Consumer Reports. “But learning more about what to look out for can help you make the right choices when you feed your family.”

The new AAP report and statement highlighted five chemical groups of concern: bisphenols (such as BPA), which line metal cans and are mixed into plastics; phthalates (which make plastic soft); perfluoroalkyl chemicals (or PFCs, which are found in grease-proof wrappers and packaging); perchlorate (found in food packaging); and nitrates/nitrites (curing agents found in some meats).

More on Food Safety

A number of studies performed in the past two decades have linked these and other chemicals to a range of health problems, including developmental and reproductive harms and obesity (bisphenols, phthalates, and PFCs), thyroid hormone disruption (perchlorate, nitrates/nitrites), and cancer (nitrates/nitrites).

It’s still an open question exactly how harmful some of these chemicals may be for children, and whether the amount that most are exposed to is risky. But while more research is needed, scientists have warned that there’s simply not enough evidence to prove that such chemicals are harmless for everyone. And that’s especially true for children, whose developing organ systems may be particularly vulnerable to any potential effects.

“There are lots of chemicals that are put into foods without the evidence base to show that they’re safe,” says the report’s senior author, Sheela Sathyanarayana, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington. “They may very well be safe, but we don't know. And that's the point.” 

It's Not Just Food Additives

This new report is only the latest in a flurry of recent findings that suggest that the food we feed children sometimes contains additives that may be risky or toxic contaminants that should never be there.

Experts (including those from Consumer Reports) have recently questioned the safety of rice and rice-based products for infants and young children, for example, as recent research has found these products can harbor a growing list of heavy metals.

One study published in October 2017 found that among a sampling of 119 popular cereal brands, rice cereals had on average three times the amount of methylmercury, the most concerning type of mercury, as multigrain cereals; and 19 times the amount in cereals made with grains other than rice. Another study published one month later found infant rice cereals to contain about six times more arsenic than other grain cereals on the market.

“One of the most important things we can do is raise awareness about this issue among the general population,” says Tunde Akinleye, a food-safety expert at Consumer Reports. “Consumers should also continue to demand changes to the way the Food and Drug Administration regulates and oversees the safety of the food we feed ourselves and our children.”

In a statement provided to Consumer Reports, the American Chemical Council, an industry group, said that "all plastics intended for contact with food are reviewed for safety and must meet stringent FDA safety requirements before they can be used in food packaging."

According to Sathyanarayana, it’s important to remember that your child is not going to be harmed from a one-time exposure to any of these chemicals. “Don’t panic if you’re feeding your kid a hot dog once a week,” says Sathyanarayana, “but you should really be trying not to do that every single day.”  

5 Ways to Minimize Exposure

Many of the chemicals that are potentially concerning are practically everywhere (even in dust), so it’s impossible to avoid them completely, says Akinleye. “We're exposed to endocrine disruptors, like BPA and phthalates, daily via diet, water, personal care and consumer products, and medical supplies, just to name a few,” he says.

But there are some simple, easy ways you can lower the risk to yourself and to your kids.

Focus on whole fruits and vegetables. Buying your fruits whole or frozen vs. canned or packaged and processed can greatly minimize exposure to BPA (from cans) and phthalates (from packaged or processed food).

“Research studies have shown that eating a diet that focuses on fresh food and frozen foods will reduce your exposure to these kinds of chemicals,” Sathyanarayana says.

And Charlotte Vallaeys, Consumer Reports' senior policy analyst and top food labels expert, agrees. “The focus on eating ‘real food’ is just a good rule of thumb, and I'm glad to see the AAP add their voice to this,” Vallaeys says.

Wash hands and produce. Consumer Reports’ experts recommend rinsing, rubbing, or scrubbing fruits and vegetables to help remove pesticide residue. In fact, a recent study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry found that soaking apples in a solution of baking soda and water can remove more pesticides than rinsing in tap water or a bleach solution alone. Seeking out the organic label can also reduce your exposure to pesticides.

Washing hands after handling different food products and packaging is important, too. “You want to avoid transferring any chemical exposures from the packaging to the food,” Sathyanarayana says.

Be cautious with plastic. Some of the most concerning chemicals listed in this report are mixed into plastic containers, food wraps, and packaging. And when they’re heated or contain hot liquids, the chemicals can leach into your food or drink. The AAP suggests using glass or stainless steel alternatives to plastic when possible, and avoiding putting plastic containers in the microwave or dishwasher.

The AAP also recommends using the recycling number to identify plastics that are highest risk: recycling codes “3,” “6,” and “7” contain phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols, respectively. “Biobased” or “greenware” plastics are fine, because they’re made from corn and not bisphenols.

Avoid processed meats, especially if you’re pregnant. Previous studies have linked the consumption of “ultra-processed” foods, such as hot dogs, chicken nuggets, sodas, and sweets, to obesity, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Additionally, many processed meats contain preservatives called nitrates and nitrites, which may form cancer-causing compounds called nitrosamines in the body.

Double-check the label. Read the fine print on package labels, says Vallaeys, to ensure you’re getting a product that doesn’t contain nitrates or nitrites.

Some processed meats labeled “no nitrates or nitrites added” may still contain them from nonsynthetic sources, such as celery juice or powder, says Vallaeys, and these can be just as harmful. If you see a product making a “no nitrite or nitrate added” claim, watch out for phrasing that says “except for those occurring naturally in” whatever naturally occurring source the company used. That means it’s not completely nitrate- or nitrite-free.