How Dangerous Are Chemicals in Your Food, Really?

How Dangerous Are Chemicals in Your Food, Really?

A leading doctors’ group is warning Americans to avoid some types of plastic containers and food additives. Here’s what you need to know.

With a policy statement warning about potential child health concerns related to certain food additives and packaging, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has set off alarms about everything from hot dogs to plastics. And after publishing its statement in the journal Pediatrics in July 2018—along with an accompanying technical report detailing the science behind the policy—the AAP took a step further on social media, tweeting from its account on August 1, 2018: “Parents, get rid of plastic food containers.”

That might leave parents calculating the expense of non-plastic replacements for food storage—and wondering just how dangerous plastics are for their children.

The question is: Do you really need to replace everything?

What you need to know about chemicals in plastics
“We are recommending that families minimize the use of plastics for food,” says Rachel M. Shaffer, an author on the AAP’s policy statement and a doctoral student at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health. “Heating food in plastic—in the microwave, for example—can promote the release of chemicals into the food.”

Some of these chemical compounds might affect thyroid and reproductive systems and metabolism. It’s worth keeping in mind though, that for many chemicals, “might” is the best information available.

Because it’s not ethical to perform deliberate exposure studies in people involving chemicals like these, most of the information about these substances’ possible effects comes from animal studies. And what human studies we do have usually involve showing a mathematical link between levels of a compound present in the blood or urine, for example, and hormone-related outcomes. So most of the evidence in people doesn’t tie chemical exposure directly to health outcomes but rather gives hints that the two might be related.

How chemicals might influence health
Many of the compounds discussed in the AAP papers are used in plastic products to lend them their specific properties. For example, bisphenol A, or BPA, is present in some hard, clear plastics. Another plastic-associated class of chemicals called phthalates is used as a softener in products such as plastic wrap. Both compounds are linked to disrupted hormone activity and metabolism.

For an adult, these effects might be transient, but during prenatal and early childhood development, the evidence is accumulating that these effects may become lifelong.

“We are particularly concerned about prenatal and early life exposures for children, especially during the first three years of life,” says Shaffer.

For a familiar example of how a chemical can differ in its effects at different life stages, consider alcohol. An adult can have a drink or two, or even binge on several drinks, and possibly experience nothing more than a bad headache the next morning. But exposure to alcohol during the fetal period can disrupt developmental processes still in motion for the brain and other systems, producing permanent changes.

What you can do about plastic products
Given the potential effects of these compounds, what can parents do when they are staring down a coming year of packing school lunches and storing dinner leftovers?

The AAP policy statement emphasizes serving fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables as often as possible—and, as Shaffer notes, setting aside processed, packaged or canned foods. The packaging for these types of foods often contains some of these chemicals of concern. For example, the linings of cans that resist corrosion often contain BPA.

In cases where making a wholesale shift away from plastic storage isn’t possible, says Shaffer, measures to reduce exposures “should be prioritized” during the prenatal period and the toddler years.

In addition to a focus on fresh or frozen fruits or vegetables, parents should consider the following recommendations from the policy statement:

  • Avoid processed meats, particularly during pregnancy. Cured meats—such as cold cuts and hot dogs—may contain nitrites and nitrates, which have been linked to disruption of thyroid hormone and to boosting levels of cancer-causing compounds. The only source of thyroid hormone for a developing embryo is the mother. Thyroid-disrupting effects from nitrates in a pregnant woman could disrupt thyroid hormone’s role in embryonic brain development. High levels of maternal intake of nitrates have even been tied to increased brain tumor risk in the child.
  • Avoid microwaving food or drink in plastics or putting plastics in the dishwasher, where heat can cause the chemicals to leach. Alternatives to plastic include glass and stainless steel.
  • Learn the recycling codes—the numbers printed in the triangles on the bottom of plastic products—and what they mean. A 3, 6 or 7 means the plastic contains chemicals you want to avoid: phthalates, styrene and bisphenols, respectively. If, on the other hand, the plastic says “biobased” or “greenware,” that means it’s a product made from plants such as corn, and doesn’t contain bisphenols.
  • Wash hands before eating and wash all fruits and vegetables that can’t be peeled.

Regulatory changes could help, too
The AAP, which has a membership of 67,000 pediatricians, also has some advice for policy-makers and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The FDA lists almost 4,000 food additives, but studies have looked at effects on reproduction for fewer than 300 of them and on human development for only two of them, the AAP reports.

In addition, food manufacturers in the United States can add any of more than 10,000 chemicals to food. Many of these chemicals aren’t FDA approved and are designated as safe only by interested parties—in many cases, the manufacturers themselves or consultants they have hired. The AAP policy statement says that the current requirements for considering an additive safe are “insufficient” and calls for a complete overhaul of how these additives are evaluated, regulated and labeled.

Medically reviewed in August 2018.

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