With back to school just around the corner, parents are getting ready to return to more structured schedules and uniform meal times. For many families, this might mean more planning, meal prep, and packed lunches.
But before you select food products or storage containers, you should keep in mind the latest report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), which explores the potential dangers of untested food additives on children—the kind of ingredients you may find in processed or packaged meats.
“The focus of this report is on children because they are still growing and developing,” said Judith B. Larkin, MD, FAAP, a Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at Sidney Kimmel Medical College at Thomas Jefferson University. “Kids, in general, tend to eat more calories in proportion to their body weight, potentially making something safe for adults problematic for children.”
The Problem with Plastics and Chemicals in Our Food
The AAP’s report responds to mounting evidence that chemicals added to processed foods or stored in certain plastic containers may contribute to disease or disability, and that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) isn’t monitoring these additives as closely as necessary.
For example, chemicals used in plastic containers and the linings of aluminum cans have been associated with obesity and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and phthalates used to make plastics flexible are known to negatively impact reproductive development in boys and men.
“It’s not that plastic has been proven to cause these issues, but there isn’t enough evidence to be sure that we’re safe,” said Dr. Larkin. “We need more testing, as well as tests that are specifically devised to ensure chemicals are safe for children.”
In fact, the FDA currently maintains a list of over 10,000 chemicals that are labeled Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) for public consumption. However, the data about these chemicals is often provided by company employees or third-party consultants without FDA oversight or scientific review.
How to Keep Your Kids Safe
Dr. Larkin reminds parents not to be alarmed, but to keep a few guidelines in mind.
“Until more research is done, parents should pay attention to the recycling codes on plastic containers and avoid numbers three, six and seven. Those products contain the chemicals mentioned in the report.”
She recommends that families purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as foods that don’t require plastic packaging. Dr. Larkin reminds families to practice regular hand washing and wash all produce before eating.
“These hygienic steps are common, so you may forget how important they are,” she said. Avoid microwaving plastic containers or putting them in the dishwasher, as heat may cause the chemicals to leech. Alternatives like stainless steel and glass are also a great option for packing and storing.
In all, as kids go back to school, the best measures parents can take is creating good habits and making a few easy changes. Not because these products are absolutely unsafe, but because they haven’t been tested.
“Some of the additives ‘generally recognized as safe’ may be grandfathered in from the 1950s and need retesting,” said Dr. Larkin. “This report isn’t meant to cause immediate fear, but bring a big push for increased focus on studies and regulation.”