So called "safe" food additives may not be so says AAP policy statement

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has released a new policy statement in the journal Pediatrics. Their statement says that at present there is little information regarding the cognitive and physiological effects of food additives and more information needs to be obtained.

According to the lead author of the statement Leonardo Trasande, an associate professor of pediatrics at New York University School of Medicine in New York, there are “serious flaws” in the present regulatory framework mainly because of the “antiquated notions of safety.” He said the policies need reform and serious reconsideration. Human health was viewed much more simplistically he said of the earlier policies.

Trasande explains that there is a process through which additives are designated as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the US Food and Drug Administration. He along with others on the AAP Council On Environmental Health write in the statement that there is no provision for protection against conflicts of interest when designating additives as GRAS. The report reads, “Because of the overuse of the GRAS process and other key failings within the food safety system, there are substantial gaps in data about potential health effects of food additives.” Trasande says that many of the additives have never been tested before and some of them have never been tested for their effects on the hormones and endocrine system or on the developing brain. Long term effects on a child’s development is another unexplored region he said.

The authors write, “Children may be particularly susceptible to the effects of these compounds because they have higher relative exposures compared with adults (because of greater dietary intake per pound), their metabolic (ie, detoxification) systems are still developing, and key organ systems are undergoing substantial changes and maturations that are vulnerable to disruptions.” One of the major concern areas are “food contact substances associated with the disruption of the endocrine system in early life, when the developmental programming of organ systems is susceptible to permanent and lifelong disruption.” The researchers point towards the potential of these additives to cause disruptions in the endocrine system, potential to cause obesity, supress immunity, reduce birth weight and harm the heart. They add that not just food additives, the harm can also come from chemicals that have been added to packaging materials and wrappings.

Trasande said, “We would like to see the removal of conflicts of interest from the testing and approval process, and the [US Food and Drug Administration] to take a stronger role in doing their own toxicology testing,” rather than depending on the companies to submit their research.

Patient education especially among the low income and minority groups is vital he added. He explained that simpler options to avoid the additives are to choose more fresh fruits and vegetables in diet and avoid processed meats and canned foods and beverages.

Avoiding heating foods in the microwave using plastic containers is another step that can be taken. The heat may cause the harmful chemicals from the plastic to leach out into the food he said. Each of the plastic containers and items have a recycling code at the bottom of the products.

The authors explain in their paper, “Look at the recycling code on the bottom of products to find the plastic type, and avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols) unless plastics are labeled as 'biobased' or 'greenware,' indicating that they are made from corn and do not contain bisphenols.” There are two major categories of additives - direct and indirect. Indirect are those that are “food contact materials” such as “adhesives, dyes, coatings, paper, paperboard, plastic, and other polymers” they explain. Direct food additives including colorings, flavorings, and preservatives.

They write about six types of additives Bisphenols, Phthalates, Perfluoroalkyl chemicals, Perchlorate, Nitrates and nitrites and Artificial food colors, each of which can cause serious damage to the developing child. Trasande says that this paper might call policy makers into attention to “fix this issue, starting by rolling back the presumption of safety for chemicals added to foods.”

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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