Most people would agree that the healthiest foods for kids are unprocessed, nutrient-dense, and – when possible – made at home. Your kids can cook healthy recipes too…really!
But take a look at our current food supply. Pondering the number of foods, chemicals, products, and other environmental influences that are in our children’s world that weren’t even around thirty, fifty, or a hundred years ago is mind-boggling.
Are these foods even safe? What does the research say?
I was thinking along those lines one wintry Saturday in January, finding myself absentmindedly staring at a young girl guzzling a neon blue G2 (low calorie Gatorade) while munching a clown-nose red licorice twist as she sat in the crowd at her brother’s basketball game.
The thought hit me like a brick: Do we have any idea what effect some of those ingredients have on pre-pubescent girls as they grow and develop?
The list of possible offenders in this one mid-morning snack:
- artificial food dyes, as unnatural in color as if they were cartoons on a screen
- high fructose corn syrup, a controversial but relatively new sweetener in the whole scheme of history
- electrolytes added to the G2, which are supposedly beneficial for athletes after a massively taxing workout, but how do they impact a young body who is…just sitting?
- and the one that always bothers me the most of all, artificial sweeteners. In our family, my kids know that Gatorade and G2 are completely different (one is a dessert and the other a no-way-Jose-throw-it-away), but I have a funny feeling that much of the world hasn’t a clue. (This is the one non-food that is put into things people eat that I will never, ever allow my kids to consume, although we unfortunately compromise on all the others on today’s list.)
I started scribbling notes on a scrap of paper in my purse for a post with a great title that popped into my head as the blue juice disappeared into a still-developing body: “Things That Have Never Been Tested on Kids.”
I know that testing products on children is kind of a no-no and not done as often as animal tests or adult human testing, so I assumed that there were likely no studies on the safety of many “food products” that children regularly consume. I couldn’t wait to start researching the idea.
What I found out was equally if not more disturbing than the idea that children might be regularly ingesting unknown, untested products.
A number of the items on my list actually DID have studies tracking how they impact young bodies, and the majority of those demonstrated frighteningly negative effects – hence the title you see today being different than the one I expected to write this winter.
What’s worse – that we might feed our kids fake foods with completely unknown effects on their developing systems, or that our kids are regularly consuming “foods” that have already been proven to cause problems, and those studies are simply ignored or downplayed?
Let’s dig in!
Fake Food #1: Food Dyes
Verdict: Tested – Both problematic and unknown
The basics: Artificial colors have been added to countless food products in America even as they are banned and removed from foods in Europe. Our consumption has increased 5x since the 1950s and is ringing in at 15 million pounds of the stuff per year added to processed foods, in 8 different colors.
Studies have shown: Food dyes are linked to hyperactivity in children specifically as well as cancer, allergies and ADHD in all age groups. They require warning labels in the E.U., which means most brands remove them from their products rather than slap a scary-looking label on the box. The FDA in the U.S. doesn’t think that’s necessary.
Fake Food #2: MSG
Verdict: Tested – problematic
The basics: MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a substance that was discovered naturally in seaweed about a hundred years ago. It excites the fifth sense of taste: umami. Incorporating umami in a dish, which can be done with something as simple as sauteed mushrooms, enhances all of its flavors.
Scientists learned to isolate the MSG only and created a powerful food additive, one that makes everything taste better (and more addicting). Many think of MSG as being something you find exclusively at Chinese restaurants, but it’s in everything from sausage to Goldfish crackers.
It is unfortunately also hidden (often as free glutamic acid, which responds similarly in the body) under over 20 different names on ingredients lists. (Anything with “autolyzed,” “hydrolyzed,” “yeast extract,” or “glutamate” is a good start to watch out for.)
Besides the obvious obesity component of foods exciting the tongue and being very addictive, MSG also excites some other areas of the body, to our children’s detriment.
Studies have shown: MSG is classified as an excitotoxin, which means it stimulates (and quickly over-stimulates) receptors in the brain, causing hyperactivity, loss of focus, and ultimately slow brain damage as the cells literally burn out from overuse.
Early research only told part of the story, because humans demonstrate higher glutamate in their blood than any other animal when MSG is consumed, and the levels stay higher for longer, resulting in much more toxic levels in humans than animals (i.e. lab rats).
Children under three and unborn babies are most susceptible to the effects of MSG partly because their brains are less protected from the environment at that age.
Even though as people age they become more resistant to its toxic effects, once exposed to MSG consistently, the body may permanently lose its ability to control weight gain, further contributing to the obesity epidemic and all the awful “diseases of civilization” that come part and parcel with that (diabetes, heart disease, cancer, even Alzheimer’s).
Learn more about MSGs and the hidden sources in a previous KS Monday Mission.
Fake Food #3: Artificial Sweeteners
Verdict: Tested, Somewhat – Problematic and Unknown
The basics: Artificial sweeteners include all non-caloric sweeteners that were created in a lab, and all of them are dangerous or suspicious at best, with the possible exception of the white powdered form of stevia, which is safe (the liquid is real food, not created in a lab).
Although kids should be in an age group where they don’t have to “watch their calories,” 12% of children drink artificially sweetened beverages, and I don’t even want to know how many regularly consume things like light yogurt, “less sugar” juice, sugar-free Jello and popsicles and more.
I’ve even found artificial sweeteners in regular old drinks that my kids bring home from parties at school – NOT the “less calorie” or “reduced sugar” kind, which means most parents are surely completely unaware of what’s going into their children’s bodies.
And if anyone in the house chews gum? Good luck finding one without artificial sweeteners.
It’s not just the “sugar-free” kinds anymore, unfortunately. I’ve only found gum without it at health food stores (Glee brand, can be found on Amazon) and maybe ONE national brand out of the 20 I read three years ago preparing for an airplane trip. They’re hiding everywhere!
There’s such ignorance on the artificial sweetener issue that when I emailed my 3rd grader’s teacher about the root beer floats they were having the last week of school, the umpteenth celebratory “treat” in those final few weeks, we had a misunderstanding that hurts me to my bones.
I had quickly asked if perhaps it wouldn’t be too much trouble to remind the parent bringing the soda to choose one of the many caffeine-free brands of root beer, for the sake of the children and the parents they were being sent home to. The teacher then forced my son to choose the diet soda, telling him that his mom “wanted him to only have sugar-free kind.”
I nearly fainted when I found this out just this weekend. My son knew better, but how is he going to argue with the teacher? Kills. Me.
Studies have shown: Ignorance cannot be bliss on this one, folks. If your child is consuming artificial sweeteners, whether you know it or not but especially if it’s a regular occurrence, they are, according to the chair of the department of nutrition at Harvard School of Public Health earlier this year, “participating in an uncontrolled experiment.”
Our kids are the lab rats on this issue, because no one can guess how artificial sweeteners will impact development and health over 40-60 years of consumption, and I was right – people aren’t doing widespread testing (that I can uncover) on the effects of no-calorie sweeteners on young children.
We do know that there are many risks to Nutrasweet, Splenda and the others, including headaches, asthma, GI distress, obesity, weight loss, hypoglycemia, irritability, depression, brain tumors and a much longer terrifying list.
Aspartame in particular (Nutrasweet), one of the more common no-calorie sweeteners, at least before Splenda/sucralose came onto the market, has been proven to be an excitotoxin and a neurotoxin linked to birth defects, cancer, brain tumors and weight gain – again, having a greater negative impact on the very young, whose brains are more susceptible.
Before aspartame was approved by the FDA, an MD by the name of Dr. John W. Olney made a statement to the board of inquiry recommending that aspartame be deemed unsafe for all populations, particularly children: “We can be reasonably certain there is no margin of safety for the use of aspartame in the child’s diet.”
So the research – or at least the medically educated conjecturing – has been done, and it’s not good news. Parents, please read labels for this one! It needs to be non-negotiable in your home that children do not consume aspartame, sucralose or other artificial sweeteners!
Read more about the dangers of artificial sweeteners for kids in a comprehensive research post at KS.
Fake Food #4: Genetically Modified Organisms
Verdict: Untested in the long term
The basics: Genetic modification is the process of putting a gene or part of a gene from one species into another species, such as deepwater fish into tomatoes to make them more cold-resistant or insect into corn to make it pesticide resistant.
Most of the corn, soybeans, canola and sugar beets grown in America are genetically modified (GM), which means that almost any processed food you buy (maybe all of them!) contain some GMOs (genetically modified organisms). Beyond that, there’s not much else to worry about in the produce section.
Studies have shown: Contradiction after contradiction. Some say there’s plenty of research showing no harm from GMOs whatsoever: 10 years of research and 1800 research papers. Clearly far too much to sift through in a sitting, but I always wonder: Are there any 10-year studies?? 20 years of studying the same person?
Since GMOs have only been around for decades, not centuries, do we have any idea of the true long-term effects?
And if we don’t, guess who’s most at risk? Because their bodies are constantly changing and still developing, children and especially adolescents are at the greatest risk of any potential health risks yet unknown with GM food. (Demonstrated potential risks in lab rat studies include immune suppression, gut disorders, liver and kidney disfunction and infertility.)
And at the rate it’s being used in processed foods and the percentage of U.S. society who subsist on those foods, we’re all joining the big unregulated GM experiment.
Genetic modification proponents say there’s no reason to worry, because the genes from GM foods cannot get into nor impact the human person.
On the other hand, new research came out two years ago that may prove that genetic material does pass from food to eater, something previously thought to be impossible. That would be a major game-changer for perspectives on GM food.
When ingesting something, I’d much rather hear that it was proven safe rather than, “We haven’t seen anyone get sick…should be fine.”
It’s called the burden of proof, like when someone is taken to court – it must be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt that they committed the crime. This “innocent until proven guilty” concept that I appreciate very much in the court system should not be applied in the same way to food, since what I don’t know can certainly hurt me!
Should we do more tests on humans, on kids? Here’s what the company getting the big money from GMOs has to say: “There is no need for, or value in testing the safety of GM foods in humans.” Thanks, Monsanto. Glad you’ve got everyone’s best interests in mind and accept the burden of proof.
Further reading on GMOs:
- A really balanced perspective weighing all sides from Chris Kresser.
- What is GMO + exploring some of the crazy controversy on this subject
- Professor emeritus of plant pathology at Purdue speaks out
Fake Food #5: Soy, Served American Style
Verdict: More Studies Needed, May be Harmful
The basics: Soybeans have been eaten for thousands of years, although that was mainly in fermented form as miso and tempeh.
Now in America, thousands of new products are created using soy or have soy added to them each year in the form of the relatively “new” soybean oil or soy protein isolate, both of which have come about in the last few decades.
Studies have shown: More confusion. Some studies show that soy may negatively impact the immune system and reproductive health or even contribute to the rise in peanut allergies. Some say that soy protects against breast cancer and may lower cholesterol and fight obesity.
The most balanced reports seem to agree that there simply isn’t enough data, yet, to say that the 40 years of soy formula have been necessarily safe, and would recommend caution for the 20-25% of U.S. babies who receive soy-based formula in their first year. (And remember, nearly all soy consumed by Americans is genetically modified, with that set of potential unknown risks.)
“We know that too much genistein [created in the body after eating soy] is not a good thing for a developing mouse; it may not be a good thing for a developing child,” said Retha Newbold, a developmental biologist at the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. (source)
If you want to know all the potential health risks of regular soy consumption, usually based on the approximate amount of a cup of soymilk or less per day, here goes:
- thyroid suppression (hypothyroidism)
- increase in cancers
- lowered testosterone/decreased sex drive
- reduced mineral absorption from other foods (can cause anemia)
- possible increase in seizures in autistic children
- premature puberty
- disruption of fetal development
- *babies on soy formula may be subjected to the equivalent of 4-10 contraceptive pills per day, when the estrogenic effects are adjusted for age and body mass.
Fake Food #6: Carrageenan
Verdict: Largely Untested
The basics: Carrageenan is a substance used as a food additive, thickener, emulsifier, etc. in a plethora of everyday products like ice cream, soy and almond milks, cottage cheese, creamer, and more. It’s derived from seaweed, but like MSG, the additive is typically quite far from the actual natural plant.
Studies have shown: Carrageenan has actually been quite widely studied over its 50 years in the food supply. The results are, of course, contradictory and confusing, partly because many research studies used the wrong kind of carrageenan that doesn’t behave the same way as the food additive.
Results from animal studies may not be able to be extrapolated because the substance is very species-dependent when it reacts. There also have only been in vitro experiments on human cells, isolating compounds without the rest of the food or the human person, which may not demonstrate the way the whole thing reacts in our bodies.
That said, there is some related risk of inflammation and gut health issues, which can be a major deal for something hidden in so many foods.
Fake Food #7: High Fructose Corn Syrup
Verdict: Somewhat tested, Not Very Positive
The basics: High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is an inexpensive industrial sweetener derived from corn. It is about 55% fructose and 45% glucose, slightly different than white table sugar (typically beet sugar) which is just about 50/50.
When considering whether HFCS will hurt you or your children, here are all the facets of the issue to consider:
- All sweeteners add calories without nutrients to a food
- All sweeteners raise the blood glucose/blood sugar
- HFCS is pretty much always genetically modified…if that makes a difference (but so is most white table sugar)
Studies have shown: Although the corn producers want us to call HFCS “corn sugar” and be not afraid of it, there is much to hesitate about. High fructose corn syrup has been demonstrated in studies to cause obesity at greater rates than fat or table sugar, thus linking it to diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease. Corn syrup has also been shown to increase hyperactivity in children.
The Bottom Line – Whole Foods are the Healthiest Foods for Kids
Could there be more than seven items on this list? Certainly. Far more. But you have to realize that cooking from scratch and avoiding most processed foods (at least without careful and educated label reading) is a must if you want to truly avoid these toxic additives even most of the time.
Aside from the actual foods, a healthy mindset about food is vitally important for kids too. Check out this interview about having a healthy relationship with food.
Kitchen Stewardship® provides the resources you’ll need to get started providing your family foods that are healthy for kids and transitioning to a more whole foods lifestyle, including:
- Baby Steps – where to start!
- Natural Living resources to cut the toxins out of the environment as well
- Printable: What to Eat, What to Avoid, How to Compromise
- Get a free eBook about real food party recipes when you sign up HERE.
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