They have been linked to hindering children's holistic health and development.
A brand new report and advisory from the American Academy of Pediatrics was published this week in the journal Pediatrics, linking a handful of chemicals commonly used in food and packaging production to a large impact to children's health.
The report is most damning for prepackaged, prepared foods, but understanding which chemicals pose a threat to your child's health in particular could help you make better choices when shopping.
The five chemical groups highlighted within the study are bisphenols (including BPA) that are found within plastics and inside metal cans; nitrates and nitrites, additives used to cure certain meats; perfluoroalkyl chemicals, also known as PFCs, used in grease-proof wraps and packaging often found at fast-food restaurants; and perchlorate, which is often found in various forms of product packaging.
The team of researchers who published the advisory review linked these chemicals to a wide array of health issues. Obesity and stunted development are linked to PFCs like phthalates, and research links nitrates to cancer so thoroughly that the WHO lists them as carcinogens.
One of the report's senior authors, Sheela Sathyanarayana, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington, told Consumer Reports that children are particularly at risk for these issues because their bodies are in early stages of development compared to adults.
“There are lots of chemicals that are put into foods without the evidence base to show that they’re safe,” Sathyanarayana said. “They may very well be safe, but we don't know. And that's the point.”
More on additives that could be harming your health:
- These Ultra-Processed Foods Have Been Linked to Greater Risk of Cancer
- What Are Phthalates—And Should We Be Worried?
- Children's Exposure to BPA Linked to ADHD
Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of the Division of Environmental Pediatrics at New York University's School of Medicine and another researcher who worked on the report, shared with CNN that there's a quick way for parents to check if products could contain chemicals highlighted by the report.
He recommends using the recycling number printed on the product to identify plastics that are "high risk." Recycling codes “3,” “6,” and “7” contain phthalates, styrene, and bisphenols, respectively. If the product contains language that suggest they're made from "biobased" or "greenware" plastic, the risk of harm is nearly nonexistent given that these materials are generally made from corn.
The American Academy of Pediatricians also suggests parents consider using glass and stainless steel instead of plastic— and, for home cooks in particular, thoroughly washing fruits and vegetables that aren't peeled after unpacking them.
Consumer Reports' team of experts advised shoppers to buy whole fruits and vegetables that are either fresh or frozen—rather than canned, packaged, or processed—to minimize exposure to chemicals like BPA within cans and phthalates within packaged foods.
“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.
While the thought of you or those in your family ingesting harmful chemicals can be worrisome, Sathyanarayana says that the academy's warning is to promote change to overall lifestyle habits rather than complete abstinence.
“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.”
The bottom line: The American Academy of Pediatricians' findings provide another opportunity for home cooks to choose fresh foods over processed items that are sold already packaged in potentially harmful plastic. There's ample evidence pointing that the nutritional content of fresh and frozen items can be superior to that of packaged items and food typically found at drive thrus—now, they could also provide less risk of chemical contamination overall.