The American Academy of Pediatrics recently released a policy statement on food additives — the direct food additives like nitrates, and indirect ones, like plastic containers that come into contact with food. Their bottom line is that the FDA’s regulatory process doesn’t properly vet food additives and cannot assure us that all of these 10,000 “chemicals” [emphasis mine] are 100% safe.
I like the AAP – really I do – but in this case I wonder if they’re presenting a balanced view of the total body of science on food additives. For example, the statement references studies where additives are “linked” to conditions like impaired thyroid function and immune responses to vaccines, even increased risk for obesity. Yet, many of the referenced studies also admit that such “link” may not be one of cause-and-effect. Moreover, numerous studies not referenced validate the safety of these additives. Getting approval of a new food additive just isn’t easy – nor should it be.
Is ANYTHING 100% Safe?
Not likely, and that includes prescribed medications, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them when necessary. It would be easy to get suspicious of everything we eat: Are healthy foods like beans 100% safe for everyone?
It’s more useful to me and my patients to put this issue perspective, and to that end I think the AAP statement could have done that better. We DO have the most advanced food delivery system in the world and our FDA is a guide post for similar organizations in other countries.
The AAP’s issue with nitrates is one I don’t get, for example. Nitrates and “processed meats” are buzz words, true. But a food label saying “no nitrates added” doesn’t mean the meat has no nitrates. Celery powder is often a substitute, because celery is a source of natural nitrate, along with green beans, carrots, spinach and collards. Of course, celery powder is also a “food additive.”
If someone is eating processed meat frequently, I’d be more concerned with what it’s replacing in the diet, rather than nitrates per se. Let’s balance the diet and the nitrates become a non-issue.
The Big Picture
As a pediatric nutritionist for over 30 years, I’d love it if we lived in a world without a need for anything “additive”. But we don’t, and in some cases that’s a good thing. After all, food additives have provided some of the best public health interventions. I’m glad I don’t have to see children with neural tube defects anymore, now that folic acid – a food additive – is added to enriched grains. My own mother remembers her grandmother having a goiter and to this day she will only use iodized salt. No fancy sea salt, not even Kosher salt, for her. “You never had to see anyone with a goiter,” she says.
The AAP calls for the FDA to re-examine the regulatory process for approval of food additives, including those additives on the “GRAS” (generally regarded as safe) list. They also note that low-income children are at increased risk, as higher consumers of packaged foods.
Food Additives & Food Budgets
As for affordability, I like that the AAP recommends practitioners “develop a list of low-cost sources of fruits and vegetables.” I’ve worked my entire career with low income patients and helping patients stretch their food dollars goes hand-in-hand with good medical nutrition therapy. Nothing is nutritious until people eat it.
I don’t have the luxury of telling parents that their family’s health is at risk until the feds beef up their regulatory process. I also think there’s a lot that you can do at ANY income level to reduce exposure to additives. The AAP does give some recommendations in the interim, but frankly, they’re the same ones I’ve been giving to my patients on for years, just for general health:
• Make fresh fruits and veggies a big priority in the home eating environment. (Uh, it helps if parents eat them, too, and in front of the kids).
• When microwaving food, put it onto a plate or in a glass container instead of plastic. It just saves worrying about whether the container is microwave-safe to begin with. Also, no plastic wrap when microwaving. Too hot and the stuff melts. Ick.
• Forget the dishwasher for plastic containers. Just wash them by hand. Done.
Finally, if you’re doing these things anyway, then you’re also already minimizing your exposure to food additives. Then the feds can take all the time they want. You’re doing your job and that’s plenty safe.