Food & Nutrition

10 Toxic Things You Didn’t Know You Were Feeding Your Kids

You want the best for your children, naturally, so that’s why you need to know about the harmful substances that might be in their food as we speak.

Brominated vegetable oil


This sounds like something you might cook with, but it’s not. Instead, this additive keeps citrus flavorings from separating in sports drinks and sodas. “People who drink extremely large amounts of soda containing brominated vegetable oil have experienced bromine toxicity,” says Lisa Lefferts, MSPH, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Some cases found skin, nerve, and memory problems from the substance. “The effects from smaller amounts are unclear, but the fact that BVO leaves residues in body fat and in the fat in brain, liver, and other organs is unsettling,” Lefferts says. Although it’s banned in Japan and Europe, BVO was granted “interim status” by the FDA in the 1970s pending further studies—but those studies were never done. Several years ago, PepsiCo removed it from Gatorade after a high school sophomore started an online petition. “After consumer pressure, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola agreed to remove it from all of their beverages—but it is still found in Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew,” Lefferts says. So before letting your kids drink sodas, sport drinks, or other fruity beverages (which aren’t good for them anyway), check the label.



Toxic chemicals are commonly used to kill pests on many fruits and vegetables young children like to eat. “One of the top issues I’m working on is getting a very toxic pesticide named chlorpyrifos out of the food supply,” says Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, MPH, a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The testing that’s been done for residue finds it on apples, berries, melon (even on the inside), oranges, bananas—the kinds of fruits that are on the table for children.” The science shows, she says, that the pesticide is toxic to the developing brain of children. “There are a number of studies linking exposure to the pesticide to learning disabilities and increased behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other problems, because the developing brain is so sensitive,” Rotkin-Ellman says. Even after washing, the residue remains, so the best option is to buy organic fruits and veggies for your children—as well as yourself if you’re pregnant, since studies also link exposure in the womb to developmental problems later on. “Australian research published in the journal Environmental Research showed that when study participants switched to eating a diet of at least 80 percent organic food for just one week, their urinary analyses revealed a dramatic 89 percent reduction in detectable levels of [certain] pesticides,” say Mira Calton, a certified nutritionist, and Jayson Calton, PhD, authors of Rich Food Poor Food. Here are 50 secrets food manufacturers don’t tell you that could change the way you eat.


Toxic-Things-You-Didn't-Know-You-Were-Feeding-Your-KidsAS Food studio/Shutterstock

You’ve probably heard of the poison arsenic, but you probably don’t know that it’s present in high levels in a food your kids probably eat a lot of: rice. “Arsenic in its inorganic form is a known human carcinogen, and is very potent,” Lefferts says. “It can also affect children’s ability to learn.” It’s of special concern for children because many of their first foods, including cereal and puffed snacks, are rice-based. “Rice takes up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains,” Lefferts says. “The FDA has proposed action levels for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal (100 parts per billion) and apple juice (10 ppb)—steps in the right direction.” Similar limits have already been set in Europe. According to the FDA, rice intake for infants relative to their body weight is three times greater than it is for adults, and studies have shown arsenic can have developmental effects in children. Lefferts advises feeding your children a variety of grains and other foods to make sure they aren’t ingesting too much of the toxin.


Toxic-Things-You-Didn't-Know-You-Were-Feeding-Your-KidsSyda Productions/Shutterstock

This group of chemicals is found in many plastics, including food containers. “Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, so they interfere with the hormones that are involved in the growth and development of a fetus and infant, reproductive development as well as brain development,” Rotkin-Ellman says. When possible, avoid storing food in plastic containers. “There’s a brand of sauerkraut I really like, and even better it comes in this wide-mouthed jar that I reuse over and over again for my lunches,” says Jennifer Sass, PhD, a senior scientist at the NRDC. While glass can be tricky with young children, it’s still best to avoid plastic when you can. Unfortunately, phthalate exposure can still crop up where you least expect it, Dr. Sass says. “They’re in a lot of fatty foods, especially dairy products—the plastics could be tubing, could be gloves, so anywhere along the processing and producing of these foods,” she says. This is even the case for organic products. “Organic doesn’t make a difference because the organic standard doesn’t apply these kinds of processing materials,” she says. So how can you avoid it? “One thing people can do very easily is pick lower fat dairy: non-fat or low-fat milk, and the same with yogurt and ice cream.” Find out other ordinary products that could affect your health.

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