Pediatricians Issue Cautions About Chemicals in Plastics & Food Packaging

A new report flags certain chemicals as potentially harmful, especially for babies and young kids. Here are steps you can take to cut your family's exposure.
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You should use fewer plastic containers for food, opt for fresh or frozen over canned, and limit processed meats to avoid certain chemicals in food and food packaging, advises the American Academy of Pediatrics in a new policy statement. They're also urging the government to better regulate these substances, which they say may not be safe for young children.

According to the AAP policy statement about food additives, more than 10,000 chemicals are allowed to be added to food and food packaging in the United States. The safety of those chemicals is of particular importance for babies and young kids, who the authors say are more vulnerable to chemical exposure because of their lower body weight and because their bodies' organ systems are still developing.

Evidence from animal and population studies suggest that some of the chemicals used in foods and packaging may be linked to health problems, according to the statement and an accompanying report. The chemicals the AAP singles out include BPA, used in the lining of cans, nitrates and nitrites, used to cure meats like bacon, ham, and hot dogs, and phthalates used in plastics.

To help reduce the exposure to these chemicals, here are the AAP's recommendations for parents:

  • Focus on getting fresh or frozen fruits or vegetables (over canned).
  • Avoid processed meats, especially during pregnancy.
  • Avoid microwaving foods or drinks (including formula or breastmilk) in plastic containers.
  • Don't put plastics in the dishwasher.
  • Use alternatives to plastics for storing foods and drinks, like glass or stainless steel containers.
  • Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3, 6, and 7 unless they're labeled "biobased" or "greenware" (that means they're made from corn).
  • Wash hands before handling food and drinks and wash all fruits and vegetables.

If following this advice to a "T" doesn't seem feasible—or thinking about all the times you've washed plastic in the dishwasher now concerns you (raises hand), don't worry, says Rachel Shaffer, MPH, one of the statement's authors. "Try to incorporate this guidance going forward when possible," she says. "But we don't want to cause stress or alarm." Personally, eliminating all canned food, hot dogs, and plastic wrap doesn't feel doable for my family. But simply reducing the frequency will help cut exposure too. Shaffer does suggest erring on the side of caution if possible during pregnancy and in the first three years of life.

Even more importantly, the government needs to better ensure that potentially harmful chemicals are kept out of the food supply, says the AAP. One major issue is that about 1,000 chemicals added to food and packaging are used without official FDA approval because they're classified as "GRAS" ("generally recognized as safe"). According to the AAP, there are loopholes in that process that allow chemical companies (or people paid by those companies) to designate their chemicals as GRAS. The AAP is calling on the FDA to improve the GRAS process, retest previously approved chemicals, and expand testing.

"The burden should not fall on families," says Shaffer. "Policy needs to change to ensure that food is safe."

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the forthcoming book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.



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