10 Food Additives Children Should Avoid and Some Safer Alternatives
By Deanna Minich, PhD, FACN, CNS
The health of today’s children in the Western world is on a steep decline: more children now more than ever are obese and are experiencing “adult” chronic conditions such as high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes. In fact, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine written in 2005 by Dr. Olshansky and colleagues at the University of Illinois at Chicago had commented that life expectancy is on a decline – it has been predicted that children born in the 21st century will not outlive that of their parents if the situation does not change.
How do reverse this tumultuous tide and help our little ones to be healthy in their youth, giving them a solid foundation as they move into their later years?
One place to start is to monitor their food consumption, especially their intake of food additives. If your family is eating any convenient, processed foods, chances are they are taking in a fair share of questionable food additives. And, unlike adults, children have smaller bodies and relatively immature immune systems and guts. As a result, they tend to be more sensitive to their environment and what they eat.
Here is a list of some of the food additives to watch for in your child’s food supply:
- Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are preservatives commonly used in fat-containing foods such as meats (lunch meats, sausage), butter, lard, cereals, and baked goods. In animals, BHA has been shown to cause cancer and BHT fed in low doses over time or in high doses caused detrimental changes in the liver. Avoid these compounds by reading labels and reducing consumption of these processed foods. If you buy processed foods for your family, aim for minimal to no suspicious ingredients. In some cases, healthier sources of antioxidant preservatives such as vitamin E (tocopherol) may be found in select products (e.g., vegetable oils).
- Trans fats are created when unsaturated (liquid) fats are made more solid and shelf-stable through a process known as hydrogenation. Partially hydrogenated oil (and resulting trans fat) is found in dozens of convenient, processed food items, especially dessert and bread mixes, French fries, margarine, cookies, donuts, and frozen meals. Eating these fats can lead to increased risk for heart disease. As a result, the National Academy of Sciences has reported that there is “no safe amount” of trans fat. Make sure you read ingredient labels of foods carefully – if it says “partially hydrogenated…(insert oil name, like soybean oil)”, then chances are there is some small amount of trans fat in the final product. Rather than having your child eat foods loaded with these toxic fats, try introducing healthy sources of fat into your child’s diet like olive oil and the omega-3 oils found in fish.
- Sugar can be addictive and it comes under a multitude names including sucrose, corn syrup, dextrose, cane sugar, brown sugar, evaporated cane juice, and raw sugar, to name a few. The rise in rates of obesity has been associated with increasing amounts of sugar (especially high fructose corn syrup) in the diet. Although it may be impossible to truly avoid sugar in your child’s diet, minimize as much as possible and make healthy choices such as fruits and fruit juice concentrates (apple, pear, orange) to flavor their foods.
- Artificial sweeteners are perhaps even more addictive than sugar because they are intensely sweet – typically hundreds of times sweeter than regular table sugar. Common and brand names of some artificial sweeteners include Acesulfame K®, Aspartame, NutraSweet®, Equal®, Neotame, Sweet ‘N Low®, saccharin, sucralose, Splenda®, and Sweet One®. Although many of these sweeteners are well tested in laboratory studies with animals and humans, some anecdotal reports from consumer-written blogs and websites suggest that they can have a variety of negative effects on health, often related to the brain (behavior) and nervous system (headaches, dizziness, nausea, hallucinations). My personal opinion is that it may not be beneficial to expose the sensitive brain and nervous systems of children to these compounds. Let your child’s palate develop for healthier sources of sweeteners such as fruit and fruit juice concentrates rather than this unnatural, inflated sense of sweetness found with synthetic sweeteners.
- Sulfites come in many forms – potassium bisulfite, sulfur dioxide, sodium metabisulfite, sodium sulfite, to name a few. Like BHT and BHA, they can be added to preserve foods. Typically, you will find sulfites even in what you might consider “healthy foods” like dried fruits and vegetables, dried potatoes, and vinegar, so read labels carefully. Sulfites can be highly allergenic for some individuals, especially those with asthma, potentially causing migraines, hives, itching, and breathing difficulties. Again, like the other preservatives, it is preferable to choose foods without the addition of these compounds. Instead, choose fresh foods that you prepare at home as much as possible!
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is an additive used to enhance savory flavor in meats, sauces, spices, instant meals, and bouillon cubes. Some people are sensitive to MSG and may experience nerve-toxic effects like headaches, mood changes, numbness, nausea, weakness, and a burning sensation in the upper body. Rather than make food savory through the addition of MSG, try out using natural seasoning like oregano, dill, and basil. Also, if you go to Chinese restaurants with the family, be sure to ask that the food be MSG-free.
- Artificial colorings such as FD&C Blue No. 1, Blue No. 2, Green No. 3, Red No. 3, Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, and Yellow No. 6, are added to foods to help retain or enhance their color. Typically these colorings are found in low-nutrition foods like candy, cakes or cookies. However, they can also be added to foods like meats to provide a more consistent color. Recent studies suggest that artificial colorings cause hyperactivity and/or attention deficit disorder (ADD) in children. Allergic reactions can also be seen in individuals that are sensitive. There are natural colorings that can be used by food manufacturers in place of artificial colorings – beet powder and lycopene for red, beta-carotene and carrot oil for orange, saffron and turmeric for yellow, chlorophyll for green, and grape extract for purple.
- Salt is a popular flavoring agent and preservative found in high amounts in processed, convenient foods such as frozen dinners, canned vegetables and canned juices. Too much salt in the diet can lead to high blood pressure and increased risk for heart disease in susceptible individuals. Limit the consumption of salt in your child’s diet by reducing their intake of processed foods. If flavoring is needed, try using natural spices.
- Gluten is a protein found in a number of grains such as wheat, barley, rye and spelt. It can naturally occur in grain-containing products or be added as a thickener or texturizer to products. Individuals with celiac disease are advised to avoid consumption of this protein and the corresponding gluten-containing grains. Over the past decades, there is growing awareness of gluten intolerance, or the inability of the body to digest gluten. It may be worthwhile to minimize the intake of gluten even in children due to their relatively immature guts. Some clinicians have reported successful outcomes in using gluten-free (as well as casein-free) diets in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Gluten-free grain options include rice, quinoa, millet, and amaranth.
- White flour has typically been refined and chemically bleached with peroxides or chlorine to the extent that it requires the external addition of nutrients. The problem is that it doesn’t get close to resembling its natural state – which is one full of vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Foods containing predominantly white flour may raise blood sugar and make the body work harder because of its high glycemic impact. Instead of white flour, look for products that contain high fiber (5 grams per serving) to prevent a glycemic response.
Add years to your child’s life by subtracting food additives from their diet! Fresh, home-prepared meals crafted from whole foods rich in nutrients are a great place to start.
Deanna Minich, PhD, is a functional nutritionist and mind-body medicine health expert and author of Whole Detox. See her website, www.deannaminich.com, and Facebook page, Deanna Minich, PhD, for more details.