By Alexa Joy Sherman
In the five years since I had my son, I’ve been pretty (perhaps too) relaxed about his diet. I don’t always buy organic. We use plenty of plastic containers. I even let him have sugary cereals, cookies and (gasp!) soda on a semi-regular basis. He seems perfectly lean and healthy, but I do wonder if I’ve already doomed him to a diseased fate. “There are certainly good reasons to agonize over the chemicals in our environment or the foods we eat,” says Cara Natterson, MD, a pediatrician in Los Angeles and author of Worry Proof (Plume, 2010). “There are a lot more chemicals out there than when we were kids, and materials once used sparingly—like plastics—have become ubiquitous.”
Children may also be more affected than adults by some ingredients and toxins. “In many ways, fully developed bodies are less vulnerable than still developing ones,” says David L. Katz, MD, director of the prevention research center at Yale University’s School of Medicine in Derby, Conn. “Certain chemicals, for example, may alter how children’s bodies develop—particularly if they’re exposed to them from day one.”
Yikes! Should I move my little guy to an organic farm and encase him in a BPA-free bubble? Not necessarily. “Many fears are unfounded or overhyped,” Natterson says. “What parents need to understand are the true and relative risks.” Okay, then let’s find out which of the red flags are truly cause for concern, and what we can do about them.
Genetically Modified Foods
If you’ve eaten anything from a U.S. grocery store in the past 15 years, you’ve probably consumed a genetically modified (GM) food or organism (GMO). “In the early nineties, there were no genetically modified foods being sold,” says Alan Greene, MD, clinical professor of pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine in Palo Alto, Calif., and author of Feeding Baby Green (Jossey-Bass, 2009). “Now they make up a third of the U.S. cropland.” Although genetic modification can be a good thing—making crops hardier, for instance—there’s an increasing concern that it’s also responsible for the rapid rise in food allergies, as well as antibiotic resistance in humans.
Should you worry? Possibly. “Food allergies have been doubling about every five years since 1996—the year GM foods first came on the market,” notes Greene. “It could just be a coincidence—we don’t know for sure—but some animal studies are at least concerning.” As for antibiotic resistance, the World Health Organization says the risk is low, but has also discouraged the use of antibiotic resistance genes in GM products.
What can you do? Since GM foods aren’t yet regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—which quite literally believes it would be comparing apples to apples—the best way to minimize your exposure is to look for foods labeled “USDA certified Organic” or “non-GMO.” “This won’t guarantee that there’s no altered DNA in the food, because neighboring farms may cross-pollinate, but it significantly reduces your risk of exposure,” says Natterson.
NEXT: Artificial Sweeteners