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
Given the skyrocketing rates of childhood obesity, you’d think giving kids calorie-free sugar substitutes would be a good thing, right? Not so much. “The amount of added sweetness—real or artificial—in foods and beverages has gone up dramatically, and it’s changing our tastes overall, causing us to crave and overeat sugar,” says Greene. Indeed, studies have found that drinking diet soda is associated with weight gain, even among children. Some artificial sweeteners have also been implicated—and then vindicated—in a variety of health problems, most prominently cancer.
Should you worry? Probably. “While no hard-and-fast data shows a link between saccharin, aspartame or sucralose and disease in humans, there is suspicion fueled by animal studies,” says Natterson. Plus, fake sugar doesn’t necessarily help curb obesity—and may even be contributing to it.
What can you do? Stick with natural sweeteners—white sugar or honey, for example—and allow children to enjoy them in moderation. “A home-baked cookie made with real sugar is a lot healthier than high-volume consumption of artificially sweetened treats,” Natterson notes.
Caffeine is part of most parents’ keeping-up-with-the-kids toolkit, but they would never allow their children to consume it…would they? “Kids are getting a lot more caffeine than parents may realize,” says Greene. “Soda is the number three source of all calories in children’s diets—and they don’t just like it for the sugar, but need to keep consuming it when their energy levels fall.” Children also get a fair amount of caffeine from other beverages—like sports and energy drinks—as well as sweet treats like chocolate.
Should you worry? Yes. “Caffeine can affect your child’s ability to fall and stay asleep—which may then interfere with school performance, concentration and mood,” notes Natterson. A June 2011 clinical report from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) also notes that caffeine has been linked to harmful health effects on children’s developing neurologic and cardiovascular systems.
What can you do? The AAP advises against giving kids any caffeine-containing beverages, including soda (regular and diet), sports and energy drinks—because of the caffeine, as well as the increased risks for dental erosion and obesity. “Water is best, of course,” says Katz, “but nonfat or low-fat milk, small amounts of 100 percent fruit juice—no more than 6 ounces a day—and lightly flavored seltzers are fine, too.” Don’t forget to ration that stash of Halloween chocolate, as well.
Talk about a slippery situation: In 2004, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the FDA warned women who are or might become pregnant, nursing mothers and young children about the risks of mercury in fish—but also specifically encouraged the same population to include fish or shellfish in their diets because of the many health and developmental benefits associated with omega-3 fatty acids, in particular.
Should you worry? Within reason. “Because of industrial waste, fish contain much more methylmercury today than when we were children,” says Natterson. “You don’t want to give your child lots of methylmercury, but you don’t want to deprive the growing brain and nervous system of omega-3 fatty acids, either.”
What can you do? Give kids fish, but pay close attention to these EPA guidelines: Steer clear of shark, swordfish, king mackerel and tilefish, all of which contain high levels of mercury; have up to 12 ounces of safer seafood, such as shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock and catfish weekly; and limit albacore (“white”) tuna to 6 ounces per week, since it tends to be higher in mercury. Oh, and ditch the fish sticks: Recent research suggests that these and other commercially fried fish products tend to be low in omega-3s and high in trans-fatty acids.
The high-protein bean that’s given us everything from tofu to dairy-free infant formulas has also spawned its share of health scares. “The fears largely have to do with chemicals called phytoestrogens that are a normal component of soy,” says Natterson. “Many people believe that because phytoestrogen sounds like estrogen, it behaves like estrogen in the human body. It’s not uncommon for a parent to ask me: ‘If I give my son soy products, will he develop breasts?’”
Should you worry? To a point. “Phytoestrogen is not biologically active in most peoples’ bodies—this is why there are entire countries that subsist largely on soy protein without a problem,” says Natterson. Although some studies show amazing health benefits from soy, others show problems. “The benefits tend to be with products made from whole soy, and the problems tend to be with eating too many products containing just pieces of soy—like isolated soy proteins or soy isoflavones,” says Greene. The bigger issue with soy, in Natterson’s opinion, is genetic modification. “Today, 92 percent of all soybeans in the U.S. are genetically modified,” she says—which, once again, brings up the concerns about allergies and antibiotic resistance.
What can you do? Give your kids soy as part of a healthy diet—just make sure the foods you choose come from the whole soybean, says Greene. “You should be much more cautious with things that just have some soy protein added,” he notes. To minimize the risks associated with GM foods, opt for organic whenever you seek out soy, Natterson adds.
NEXT: PLASTICS AND FOOD PACKAGING
Plastics and Food Packaging
They are the three letters that strike fear in the hearts of parents everywhere: BPA (bisphenol A), a chemical found in some plastics, including certain water bottles and the linings of some food containers. The fears are hardly unfounded: In a 2008 report on BPA, the National Toxicology Program listed concerns (albeit slight) about the potential effects on the developing brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children at current human expo¬sure levels.
Should you worry? Probably. “The data on BPA is constantly evolving—but every study ultimately concludes that more research needs to be done,” says Natterson. “That said, if BPA is a chemical that can potentially cause disease, why not try to avoid it?”
What can you do? Whenever possible, opt for non-plastic containers like glass or stainless steel, or plastics that specifically state they are BPA-free. Look at the bottom of plastic containers for unlucky #7 and #3 inside the recycling symbol, since those are more likely to contain BPA. Try not to heat foods in the microwave in plastic containers, hand-wash plastics rather than putting them in the dishwasher and toss anything that has become worn or scratched, since it’s more likely to release chemicals. Whenever practical, choose fresh or frozen food over canned.
You needn’t panic or go all organic. Here’s a sensible guide to fueling your child’s growing body.