Pediatricians raise concern about health effects of some food coloring, additives

Chemicals used in manufacturing could cause health problems for children.

July 24, 2018, 5:48 PM

The American Academy of Pediatrics says that chemicals in food additives like food coloring and preservatives are bad for children and that parents should limit their exposure to processed foods, according to a new study published by the group this week.

The report, which was published in the journal Pediatrics, also said that parents should avoid heating up food in plastic containers because the chemicals released can be harmful to children. The report looked at research into chemicals used to treat packaging for food products, like BPA, which is used in resin coatings that prevent metal corrosion, and chemicals called PFC's that are used to waterproof paper or cardboard.

BPA can disrupt hormones in the body and cause fertility problems, according to the report, and PFCs can reduce immunity, metabolism, and cause developmental problems. The report also reviewed studies that found that decreased intake of food coloring could be associated with improved symptoms of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, known as ADHD, but there isn't enough evidence in that research to show a definite connection between the two.

"Potentially harmful effects of food additives are of special concern for children, according to the AAP. Children are more sensitive to chemical exposures because they eat and drink more, relative to body weight, than adults do, and are still growing and developing," the Academy said in a statement.

Some chemicals used in the process of packaging or preparing foods fall under an FDA rule called "Generally Recognized as Safe," which means that any substance added to food must be reviewed by the FDA unless the substance is "generally recognized, among qualified experts, as having been adequately shown to be safe under the conditions of its intended use."

The Academy says in its policy statement that many of these substances were grandfathered in for approval because they were "Generally Recognized as Safe" during the 1950's and that the process doesn't include the impact of chemicals that can be absorbed by food indirectly through packaging or dyes. The group is calling for a more rigorous process that includes testing chemicals before they are allowed to be used and re-testing chemicals that were previously approved to make sure they aren't toxic, which could require Congress to specifically allow the FDA to review data on additives that are already on the market.

American Academy of Pediatrics council on environmental health member Dr. Leonardo Trasande said there are "critical weaknesses" in the process to regulate chemicals added to food and that the government doesn't do enough to ensure all chemicals added to foods are safe.

"As pediatricians, we’re especially concerned about significant gaps in data about the health effects of many of these chemicals on infants and children," Trasande said in a statement.

ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton said the effects of chemicals like BPA have been known for years but that the American Academy of Pediatrics report looked at the best available evidence about additives and chemicals in food containers to spread awareness of the issue.

"I think all of us need to eat from the farm, not the factory. We need to try and minimize our consumption of processed foods. In general the containers tend to be an issue, so if you can use glass and not plastic, and stainless steel. Don't reheat those things unless it's glass and limit the processed foods," Ashton said on Good Morning America.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that families eat more fresh fruits and vegetables and less processed meat, avoid microwaving food in plastic and try to avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher.

The Food and Drug Administration declined to comment on the report but a spokeswoman said they are reviewing it as part of the body of evidence about the issue. Spokeswoman Megan McSeveney said in a statement that the agency looks at whether substances are not harmful when used as intended, including if they are in the "Generally Recognized as Safe" category or are used in packaging or the manufacturing process.

"Food safety is at the core of the agency’s mission to protect and promote public health for our nation’s consumers. We take seriously our commitment to the consumers and industry who look to the FDA for important guidance when it comes to our nation’s food supply, including the safety of substances used in food," McSeveney said in a statement.

She also said that the FDA has the authority to review substances that are recognized as safe if there is new information or if consumption habits have changed. For example, in 2015 the FDA determined that scientists no longer considered partially hydrogenated oils safe in foods, which means that they can no longer be added to products without a specific exemption. The FDA also issued warning letters to companies producing caffeinated alcohol products like Four Loko in 2010 after the agency found that adding caffeine to those products did not meet requirements to be considered safe. The manufacturers took those products off the market.

"The FDA’s regulations authorizing the use of food and color additives may specify the types of foods in which it can be used, the maximum amounts to be used, and how it should be identified on food labels. Where warranted, the FDA monitors the extent of Americans' consumption of new additives and results of any new research on safety to ensure an additive’s use continues to be within safe limits," McSeveney said in the statement.

ABC News' Dr. Stephanie Lee contributed to this report.