Are These Perilous Chemicals in Your Food?

chemicals in food

Story at-a-glance -

  • A group of over 60,000 pediatricians from the American Academy of Pediatrics in the U.S. is asking parents to limit children’s exposure to chemicals found leaching into food or food additives, warning they damage health
  • Chemicals of concern include bisphenols, phthalates, perfluoroalkyl chemicals, nitrates and nitrites, which affect hormonal regulation, weight gain, fertility and immunity
  • Children bear a greater chemical burden as their metabolic system is developing and pound-for-pound eat more than adults; the Endocrine Society also calls for better regulation of chemicals and testing for effects on human hormones
  • You may reduce your exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals by using glass containers, purchasing organic, grass fed meat and dairy, using natural cleaning products and organic cosmetics, and replacing nonstick pans with ceramic or glass cookware

By Dr. Mercola

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a group of over 65,000 pediatricians in the U.S., are asking parents to limit their children's exposure to dangerous plastic chemicals known to leach into food from packaging, as well as chemical food additives, warning the chemicals may damage their children's health for years to come.1 Some of those chemicals include phthalates, nitrates and bisphenols.2

Results of past research led the World Health Organization (WHO) to study and then release a joint report with the United Nations Environment Program3 suggesting a ban on endocrine disrupting chemicals may be needed to protect the health of future generations. Their research followed past studies, but is one of the most comprehensive on endocrine disrupting chemicals to date.

The report highlights a wide variety of problems, including undescended testicles, breast, prostate and thyroid cancer, nervous system defects and the development of attention deficit disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in children with exposure to chemicals commonly found in plastics and food additives.4

Phthalates are widely used to make plastics more durable and flexible, such as in your shower curtains, food packaging and vinyl gloves. They are also found in household cleaners, cosmetics and personal care products.

While used to increase durability, they are not strongly bound to the product and leach out with heat and wear. In a policy statement, the AAP expressed concerns related to:5 

"[T]he use of colorings, flavorings and chemicals deliberately added to food during processing (direct food additives) as well as substances in food contact materials, including adhesives, guys, coatings, paper, paperboard, plastic and other polymers which may contaminate food as part of packaging or manufacturing equipment …"

AAP Calls for Reduced Exposure to Chemicals

Today an alarming 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food and food-contact materials in the U.S., either directly or indirectly. Many of these were grandfathered in for use by the federal government before the 1958 Food Additives Amendment to the 1938 Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act.

An estimated 1,000 of these are used under a "generally recognized as safe" (GRAS) designation without U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. The 1958 amendment was designed to provide specific guidelines for food additives requiring formal agency review and open rulemaking process for new chemicals.6  

Despite this framework, substantial gaps in data about potential health effects of food additives exist. In fact, an evaluation of nearly 4,000 additives intentionally added to food revealed 80 percent lacked enough information to determine how much could be safely eaten and only 6.7 percent had reproductive toxicology data.7

Chemicals added under GRAS are subject to approval by the FDA unless substances are generally recognized by "qualified experts as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use."8

However, the Academy does not believe this protects the safety of children and urges the government to revise the process, making it more transparent and mandating additional testing for toxicity before chemicals can be used in food.

Some of the recommendations may require congressional action as the FDA does not currently have the authority to review existing data or retest safety on food additives. Dr. Leonardo Trasande, an AAP Council on Environmental Health member and lead author of the policy statement, commented in a press release:9

"There are critical weaknesses in the current food additives regulatory process, which doesn't do enough to ensure all chemicals added to foods are safe enough to be part of a family's diet. As pediatricians, we're especially concerned about significant gaps in data about the health effects of many of these chemicals on infants and children."

Experts fear these chemicals have a range of side effects in humans, including metabolic dysfunction, thyroid and other endocrine disruption, impaired brain development, increasing risk of obesity, and decreased birth weight.10 Trasande believes the synthetic hormones disrupt how calories are processed and ultimately how they are converted, contributing to metabolic dysfunction.

Chemicals of Concern Likely in Your Food or Packaging

The AAP addresses some of the additives placed directly into foods, or indirect additives, including chemicals from plastics, dyes, paper products, glues and different types of coatings used in the processing and packaging of food. Trasande commented an annual estimated health care cost tied to these chemicals may be roughly $340 billion. He went on to say:11

"Chemicals that affect the endocrine system, for example, can have lasting effects on a child since hormones coordinate complex functions throughout the body. Even small disruptions at key moments during development can have lifelong consequences."

Those the AAP lists as having most concern based on research evidence include:12

Bisphenols

Chemicals such as bisphenol-A (BPA) are used to harden plastics and line metal cans. They act as endocrine disruptors, changing the timing of puberty, reducing fertility, increasing body fat and affecting the nervous and immune systems.13 Although BPA is banned in baby bottles and sippy cups, it continues to be used in a variety of readily available products.

With the rising concern associated with BPA, some companies are substituting other similar chemicals, which are not tested and whose structure is chemically similar to BPA, including BPS and BPF.14

Phthalates

These chemicals are used in the making of plastic and vinyl and in industrial food production to make the plastics more flexible. They affect male genital development,15 increase the risk of childhood obesity16 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.

Perfluoroalkyl chemicals (PFCs)

These are used in grease-proofing paper and cardboard food packaging. The chemicals may reduce fertility, immunity and birth weight. PFCs may also affect your thyroid function, which is key to metabolism, digestion, brain development and bone strength.

Perchlorate

This chemical is added to some dry food packaging to control static electricity and is known to disrupt thyroid function and early life brain development.

Nitrates and nitrites

Used to preserve food and enhance color in cured and processed meats, they can interfere with thyroid hormone production and the ability of your blood to deliver oxygen throughout the body. They've also been linked to gastrointestinal and nervous system cancers.

Artificial food colors

Commonly added to children's foods to make them more visually appealing, artificial food colors are associated with worsening attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADD/ADHD) symptoms. A significant number of children who have cut out artificial coloring experience a reduction in symptoms of ADD/ADHD.

Children Suffer Greater Risk

Trasande, an expert in children's environmental health, believes children may be more susceptible due to their dose exposure. Relative to their body weight, children eat more food than adults pound-for-pound. Their organ systems are also susceptible to injury during early development, which means chronic exposure may trigger a permanent and lifelong problem.

Nearly every human physiological function has a basis in endocrine regulation, increasing the concern and potential danger of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals early in life. Unfortunately, as noted by Dr. Claire McCarthy, pediatrician at Boston Children's Hospital and assistant professor at Harvard Medical School,17 "because the exposure is small and gradual we don't even realize it's happening."

Although individuals can be exposed to the same amount of toxicant, the susceptibility will vary depending upon genetic background, sex, age, nutritional status and state of health.18 Data demonstrates even low levels of toxicants can cause harm in children, leading the scientific community to focus on the unique vulnerabilities of children as compared to adults.

According to WHO, more than 30 percent of worldwide diseases occurring in children are due to environmental factors.19 Since growth and development is a dynamic process, the nature and severity of a health effect depends on the developmental stage at exposure. So, it is easy to understand how chronic exposure to toxicants in the food supply may create lifelong health challenges.

Childhood Obesity a Growing Concern

Bisphenol and phthalates are often called "everywhere chemicals,"20 as many are found in most commonly used products and nearly 90 percent of individuals tested.21 The overall concern is these chemicals disrupt your hormonal balance and are linked to obesity.

In one study,22 scientists noted a significant rise in severe obesity in children ages 2 to 5. WHO23 calls childhood obesity "one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century [and] a problem which is global and steadily affecting many low- and middle-income countries."

According to State of Obesity,24 91 percent of American children have poor diets and get less than half the recommended 60 minutes of daily physical activity. Nearly two-thirds consume sugary beverages every day and roughly 40 percent of high school students spend three or more hours a day on a digital device.

While the growing obesity rate in children is a complex issue and food choices25 and activity both play a role, exposure to environmental toxins affecting hormonal regulation cannot be ignored. The Endocrine Society, which specializes in diabetes, obesity, thyroid and other hormone systems, released a policy statement, saying:26

"In 2015, there is far more conclusive evidence about whether, when, and how EDCs (endocrine disrupting chemicals) perturb endocrine systems, including in humans.

Thus, it is more necessary than ever to minimize further exposures, to identify new EDCs as they emerge, and to understand underlying mechanisms in order to develop methods to enable interventions in cases of EDC-associated disease. This is especially important because new chemicals may be released into the marketplace without appropriate safety testing."

The Endocrine Society also calls for more research into these chemicals and their effects, believing regulators should require testing for their effects on human hormones before approval.27

Another study focusing on the 2.1 percent of children ages 2 to 5 with severe obesity discovered most were from racial or ethnic minority groups, were nearly twice as likely to spend four or more hours a day in front of electronic screens and didn't appear to eat more calories than their normal weight peers.28

How You May Reduce Chemical Exposure

Considering all the potential sources of toxic chemicals, it's virtually impossible to avoid all of them, but that doesn't mean you have to sit silently by while corporations use your home, your water, your air, your food and your body as a convenient chemical dumping ground. Until change occurs on a global scale, you can significantly limit your exposure by keeping a number of key principles in mind.

Eat a diet focused on locally grown, fresh and ideally organic whole foods. Processed and packaged foods are a common source of chemicals, both in the food itself and the packaging. Wash fresh produce well, especially if it's not organically grown.

Rather than eating conventional or farm-raised fish, which are often heavily contaminated with PCBs and mercury, supplement with a high-quality krill oil, or eat wild-caught Alaskan salmon, anchovies and sardines.

Choose certified organic grass fed meats and dairy to reduce your exposure to hormones, pesticides and fertilizers. Avoid milk and other dairy products containing genetically engineered recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH or rBST).

Store your food and beverages in glass, rather than plastic, and avoid using plastic wrap.

Buy products in glass bottles rather than plastic or cans, as chemicals can leach out of plastics (and plastic can linings), into the contents; be aware even "BPA-free" plastics typically leach endocrine-disrupting chemicals that are just as bad.

Use glass baby bottles.

Replace your nonstick pots and pans with ceramic or glass cookware.

Look for Earth-friendly, animal-friendly, sustainable, certified organic and GMO-free products. This applies to everything from food and personal care products to building materials, carpeting, paint, baby items, furniture, mattresses and more.

Filter your tap water for both drinking and bathing. If you can only afford to do one, filtering your bathing water may be more important, as your skin readily absorbs contaminants. If your tap water is fluoridated, keep in mind that not all filter systems will filter out this toxic additive.

When buying new products such as furniture, mattresses or carpet padding, consider buying chemical-free varieties containing naturally less flammable materials, such as leather, wool, cotton, silk and Kevlar, to avoid exposure to toxic flame retardants.

Avoid stain- and water-resistant clothing, furniture and carpets to avoid PFCs.

Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove contaminated house dust. This is one of the major routes of exposure to flame-retardant chemicals.

Make sure your baby's toys are BPA-free, such as pacifiers, teething rings and anything your child may be prone to suck or chew on — even books, which are often plasticized. It's advisable to avoid all plastic, especially flexible varieties.

Switch to organic toiletries, including shampoo, toothpaste, antiperspirants and cosmetics. EWG's Skin Deep database29 can help you find personal care products free of phthalates and other potentially dangerous chemicals.

Replace your vinyl shower curtain with a fabric one or install glass doors.

Use natural cleaning products or make your own. Avoid those containing 2-butoxyethanol (EGBE) and methoxydiglycol (DEGME) — two toxic glycol ethers that can compromise your fertility and cause fetal harm.

Look for fragrance-free products. One artificial fragrance can contain hundreds — even thousands — of potentially toxic chemicals. Avoid fabric softeners and dryer sheets, which contain a mishmash of synthetic chemicals and fragrances.

Replace feminine hygiene products (tampons and sanitary pads) with safer alternatives.