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Food additive safety

Kolasa, Kathy

Kathy Kolasa

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Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Q: Last summer, The American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement calling for more research on the safety of food additives and action if they are found harmful. Is there something consumers should be doing now? GR, Greenville

A: Yes, the pediatricians of this country are concerned that some of the long held assumptions of the safety of food additives directly added to food and in packaging may not be true anymore.

Michael Clooney, a senior ECU dietetic and nutrition student, will tell you about some of the recommendations and reasonable steps concerned parents can take while the science and policy become clear.

There is growing evidence that food can be contaminated by harmful chemicals from some types of plastic. Food packaging is very convenient and most of us benefit from the variety of ways that we are able to package and preserve our food. As a result, chemicals from plastic, glues, dyes, paper, cardboard and different types of coatings used for the packaging process can be indirectly added to the foods you consume.

Some experts believe that based on the results of some recent studies of food packaging additives, not enough is being done to ensure that food chemical additives are safe enough to eat. The additives that are of particular concern include Bisphenols, phthalates and perfluoroalkyl. Bisphenols, such as bisphenolA (BPA) is used to harden plastic containers and line metal cans.

You have probably seen BPA free products advertised. The majority of us have BPA in our bodies right now and we get most of it by eating foods that have been in containers made with BPA. BPA at one point was common in baby bottles, sippy cups and baby formula cans. Manufacturers voluntarily removed BPA from these products due to concerns that infants were at high risk to the effects of BPA. Too much exposure is thought to affect hormone levels; contribute to brain and behavior problems, the development of some cancers and heart problems. Obviously the concern is that infants and young children still are developing and their body may not be efficient at eliminating these unwanted substances from their systems.

Phthalates makes plastic used in the industrial food production flexible and soft. Again it is the young - unborn babies and children - who are most affected. Many phthalates are hormone-disrupting chemicals that interfere with the production of the male sex hormone, testosterone. Some experts believe phthalates may contribute to childhood obesity and cardiovascular disease. In 2017, the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned the use of some phthalates in child-care products such as teething rings.

Perfluoroalkyl substances or PFAS are found in cardboard food packaging and certain PFAs can accumulate and stay in the human body for long periods of time. Research evidence found that exposure to this additive also can lead to adverse health outcomes in humans and may reduce immunity, infant birth weight and fertility. There clearly is a need for ore research that will lead to a better understanding of the impact of chemical contamination of food through packaging materials.

The wide use of these additives may make it feel overwhelming to try to avoid products with them in it. The pediatricians suggest it would be helpful if you limit your exposure to these harmful chemicals, especially pregnant women, infants and children. These recommendations are consistent with nutrition experts calling for us to eat more whole foods when we can.

So, buy more fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables. Learn some other quick preparation methods so you can avoid microwaving food or beverages in plastic containers. Avoid putting plastics in the dishwasher where the high temperatures and harsh detergents can cause these plastics to leach BPA and phthalates. Instead, if possible use glass, ceramic or stainless steel containers for cooking and storage. Avoid cooking with Teflon coated products which contain PFAS – particularly if scratched or worn. Avoid plastics with recycling codes 3 (phthalates), 6 (styrene), and 7 (bisphenols). Buy food products, when you can, that are available in glass jars. And talk with your elected officials about funding the research to help us understand the positive and negative roles food additives play in our life.

Professor emeritus Kathy Kolasa, a registered dietitian nutritionist and Ph.D., is an affiliate professor in the Brody School of Medicine at ECU. Contact her at kolasaka@ecu.edu.

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