As a parent, I know how hard it is to avoid all the food colorings and artificial additives that come packaged in our children’s favorite foods. But if you take a moment to scan the ingredients, you can locate healthier alternatives that your kids will find just as yummy.
Here is the rundown on three majorly harmful chemicals that you should avoid in your quest for healthy snacks.
You probably know MSG as a popular food additive in Chinese food, but it can also be found in canned veggies, soups, and processed meats. Reactions to MSG in adults are generally short-lived and don’t require treatment. Symptoms include headache, burning of the head and neck, muscle tightness, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea, weakness, hives, and more.
MSG is generally recognized as safe by the FDA, but the reality of MSG is that it adversely affects our children. MSG stands for monosodium glutamate, and glutamate has a major impact on development of infants and children. Processed forms like MSG are thought to impair growth, nerve function, and learning. Our brains rely on chemicals called neurotransmitters to signal our bodies to react. Glutamate is the main neurotransmitter for the part of your brain that controls hormones, body temperature, eating, and sleeping behaviors. It also regulates pain, heart function, breathing, and digestion. Besides the brain, glutamate receptors can be found on most of our major organs!
Natural glutamate works to excite neurons and is not dangerous. However, the chemical additive MSG can over-stimulate these neurons, even causing them to destruct, or as a study described the MSG-laden neurons as “exciting themselves to death” (1).
As a busy parent, I can appreciate a night off provided by a little Chinese takeout; but practice moderation and find a fresh alternative for the little ones. I love a Thai-food restaurant near our house that not only is MSG-free, but also non-GMO. Such a score. So try to find those healthy, quick options for your family too! In fact, it’s extra important for young children and nursing moms to avoid MSG! Developing infants are four times more sensitive to MSG than adults, and this scary chemical can potentially lead to nervous disorders, brain damage, and fluctuating hormones.
FD&C dyes are added to foods, beverages, drugs, and cosmetics. They are traditionally used to enhance or simulate the natural color of food products (like fruit-flavored candy) and are commonly found in kids’ foods. As a parent, I know how appealing food coloring makes food for my children; however, remember that a number of food dyes have been reported for their adverse health effects.
While the FDA requires manufacturers to list FD&C dyes with other ingredients, it does not require warning labels on packaging—a practice now required in Europe. Despite the lack of warning, health risks exist—especially for children. If you’re a parent, you’ve likely witnessed firsthand how red candy, for example, can cause instant hyperactivity in your kids. This may be reason enough to avoid food dyes in your children’s foods! Furthermore, certain dyes have been linked to numerous forms of cancer and contain known carcinogens.
My advice as a mom and a physician is to avoid food dyes in general, but still keep colorful foods as part of your diet. Luckily, there are many alternatives that use fruits, vegetables, and spices to color your go-to snacks—just check the ingredient label. Shop for healthy foods that are naturally vibrant, like strawberries, blueberries, purple eggplants, red bell peppers, and green spinach. Bright colors in fruits and veggies are a sign of nutrient-rich content, and can be fun for kids too!
BHA and BHT
BHA and BHT are chemical preservatives that are used to keep foods fresh. They have antioxidant properties, which protect foods from the effects of oxygen, or simply put, from going bad. This one may be the hardest to avoid as it is present in foods we consume every day, including butter, cereal, cured meats, chips, beer, baked goods, dessert mixes, chewing gum, wax food packaging, and more!
Recognized as generally safe by the FDA, these two chemical preservatives raise concern in other health organizations. The National Institute of Health, for example, anticipates BHA to be labeled a human carcinogen. It is also thought to cause cancer. And here’s some food for thought: BHT is also used as antiviral medication to treat herpes and AIDS. It works by damaging the outer layer of a viral cell before it can multiply, ultimately destroying it.
As a nutritionist and a parent, it’s hard to deny the harmful potential of BHA and BHT; however, there is a natural alternative to these scary chemical additives. Vitamin E keeps foods as fresh as BHA and BHT but without the side effects. As a physician and advocate of healthy living, I recommend avoiding these chemical preservatives and choosing products that use vitamin E instead, which you’ll find in the natural foods section of your grocery store.