Additives in Kids' Foods Could Cause Disease and Disability, Researchers Warn

Snacks sit on a Miami grocery store shelf in July 2014. Pediatricians warn that the common additives found in processed foods severely harm children's development. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

In an analysis of some 10,000 chemicals the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows in food processing, the American Academy of Pediatrics called current food additive requirements "insufficient" and urged more stringent regulations to better protect America's youngest consumers.

The chemical additives, used to preserve a food or modify how it tastes and looks, are particularly potent in children, whose still developing metabolic and organ systems can be severely affected by toxic levels of exposure, study authors said in a report and policy suggestion published Monday in the journal Pediatrics. Some of the most prevalent compounds found in food and its packaging cause the most harm, disrupting puberty, inciting obesity and damaging future fertility.

Inconsistencies in food safety research and the long-term effects of common additives have contributed to child health deficiencies, the researchers said. Under the 1958 Food Additives Amendment, many chemicals were automatically presumed safe with little to no supporting research, and more than 1,000 more are "generally recognized as safe" by company consultants instead of the FDA. Those consultants are legally allowed to bypass formal FDA approval of the chemicals. And in the FDA's online database of all substances added to food, 63.9 percent of the nearly 4,000 ingredients listed were missing toxicology data.

"As pediatricians, we're especially concerned about significant gaps in data about the health effects of many of these chemicals on infants and children," lead author Dr. Leonardo Trasande said in a statement. "Even small disruptions at key moments during development can have lifelong consequences."

Researchers organized chemicals into direct additives, which include the colorings and flavors added during processing, and indirect additives, contained in the plastics, dyes and adhesives used in packaging that could contaminate food after it's processed. Most of the compounds that cause damage fall in the latter category, researchers wrote: Artificial chemicals like phthalates and bisphenols found in plastic food containers can disrupt the endocrine system and reduce fertility.

A high concentration of the indirect additive bisphenol A, called BPA, might be a sign of inequality. Black Americans and low-income families often have the highest levels of BPA, which can alter the timing of puberty and cause obesity by promoting the storage of lipids, researchers said. Low-income families are more likely to consume foods that contain BPA, such as canned goods, since they're cheaper and more readily available in neighborhoods without large supermarkets or access to fresh fruits and vegetables. Obesity is also more common among low-income, nonwhite children in the U.S. and is likely linked to their higher consumption of BPA-containing processed foods.

Even seemingly harmless additives like artificial food coloring can interfere with a child's development, the paper's authors said. Studies linked the chemical colors, commonly used in sugary fruit juices that contain little to no fruit, to aggravating pre-existing attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Perchlorate, another common chemical found in plastic packaging of dry foods, can alter early brain development and thyroid function.

Though the researchers admitted it's "difficult to know how to reduce exposure" to the additives pervasive in food production, they urged the FDA to establish a stricter chemical approval policy and retest previously approved additives to ensure their safety.

"Despite a tough political climate, there is an urgent need for decision-makers to fix this issue," Trasande said.