5 Harmful Side Effects of Food Preservatives for Children

Do you know what is common between a can of corn, a take-out pizza, a ketchup and a jam bottle? They all contain food preservatives, additives or chemicals that can be dangerous for the health of children. So first let us understand preservatives, its types and the harmful side effects of food preservatives.

What are Preservatives?

Preservatives are substances added to food or food products to prevent spoilage caused by bacteria, molds, fungus and yeast. As such, food preservatives help to keep food fresher for a longer period of time by extending its shelf life.

With the increase in globalization and transport efficiencies, you can now easily find a food item produced in a far off place, available in your local grocery shop. Although the transport could take a few days or a few weeks, but adding preservatives will ensure that it is received by the customer exactly the way the maker intended it to be at the time of manufacturing it. Though preservatives help to preserve the taste and flavor of food items for an extended time, consuming excessive preservatives can cause various health issues. However, it is important to understand that not all preservatives are bad and we should learn how to differentiate between the good ones and the bad ones. 

Types of Preservatives:

There are commonly two types of preservatives namely natural and artificial preservatives.

Natural Preservatives:

As the name suggests, natural preservatives are the ones that use natural ingredients to preserve the food items. These preservatives do not use chemicals to change the composition and also do not mix with any synthetic items. Moreover, they have antioxidant properties which means that they can delay the process of oxidation or ageing and increase longevity. For example, naturally occurring preservatives include oil, sugar and salt. This is the reason why pickles can last for years because of a combination of salt and oil which acts like a natural preservative for the vegetable chunks. Curing, freezing, dehydrating, jellying and fermentation are some other methods of food preservation.

Artificial preservatives or chemicals: 

These kinds of preservatives are used to delay spoilage in foods but are artificially produced or synthetic in nature. You can also find them mentioned as ‘additives’ in food labels. Hence, it is very important to read the labels carefully before buying any product. For example, jams, different types of spreads, packed juices, ketchup, and baked foods are loaded with artificial preservatives and chemicals. (What are some preservatives free healthy spreads for kids?)

The three main categories of artificial preservatives are antimicrobials, antioxidants, and chelating agents. 

  • Antimicrobials: They help to prevent the overgrowth of bacteria and molds. And include: 1) Benzoates (found in many beverages). 2) Sorbates (help to prevent mold, yeast and fungi growth in foods and beverages). 3)Propionates (mold inhibitors used in baked goods). 5) Nitrates and nitrites (help to prevent bacterial overgrowth, most notably Clostridium botulinum). 
  • Synthetic Antioxidants: They help to prevent discoloration and include sulfites, synthetic vitamin E, C, butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT).
  • Chelating agents: They include EDTA and polyphosphates. And help to bind metals, usually copper and iron to prevent the metals from oxidizing and speeding up spoilage.
Natural vs Artificial Preservatives:

This comparison between natural and artificial preservatives will help you to understand the difference better and also help you to make wiser choices.

Natural PreservativesArtificial Preservatives
Naturally occurring substances, generally used in kitchenMan-made chemical substance
No restriction or limitation on use as naturally occurringUsed in limited quantity
No need to be cautious in using them, so better to choose products with natural preservativesRisk due to chemicals, hence use should be limited
Example: Salt, sugar, oil, vinegar, alcoholExample: Benzoic acid, sulfite, sorbate
Natural vs Artificial Preservatives

5 Side effects of food preservatives:

The American Academy of Pediatrics warns about the harmful side effects of food preservatives and food additives in their policy statement. So as per this statement, preservatives are all the way more harmful for children. Children are smaller, so their “dose” of any given chemical ends up being higher. Moreover, they put their hands in their mouths more often than adults do, so they are likely to ingest more. Since their bodies are still developing, they can be at more risk.

1. Breathing problems: 

One of the most harmful side effects of food preservatives is that they increase the chances of breathing problems like asthma. Some of the preservatives present in food items such as aspartame, sulfites, and benzoates aggravate breathing problems. Therefore, removing foods with preservatives from the diet can help in reducing the symptoms as well as the severity of breathing problems. (Which foods help to increase immunity in kids?)

2. Obesity:

Preservatives could be the reason for excessive weight gain and obesity in kids who are mostly consuming processed foods. Also, artificial preservatives used in many processed foods could increase the risk of inflammatory bowel diseases and metabolic disorders. (How to prevent obesity in kids?)

3. Hyperactivity:

Most of the packaged food companies are adding artificial preservatives to delay spoilage and contamination in foods.  Artificial preservatives such as nitrates, benzoates, sulfites, sorbates, parabens, formaldehyde, BHT, BHA and several others can cause serious health hazards such as hyperactivity, neurological damage and hypersensitivity. (How some foods can help to manage hyperactivity in kids?)

4. SERIOUS diseases: 

Recently, cardiovascular diseases have become quite common and the presence of preservatives on food items is one of the main causes of increasing heart problems. Studies also suggest that food preservatives can weaken the heart tissues over time. Another harmful side effects of food preservatives is that they can result in forming cancer cells. For example, some food items consist of nitrosamines, a preservative which has nitrites and nitrates. When this is mixed with the gastric acids, it forms cancer-causing agents. That is primarily why it is best to avoid snacks or meals that are loaded with nitrites and nitrates. (What are some foods to add daily nutrition for kids?)

5. Hormones:

Another side effect of food preservatives are that they can affect your child’s neurological development and the endocrine system, which regulates hormones. The endocrine system is involved in growth and hormones, so if additives affect estrogen or testosterone, it can also affect development during puberty. Since food choices have a direct effect on hormone levels in the body, it becomes extremely important to make sure that each and every bite that goes into your kid’s mouth is adding nutrition and not causing any harm in any way. Moreover, hormonal imbalance is very common nowadays amongst the teenagers and one of the major reason for this is excessive consumption of processed foods, ready to eat and packaged foods. (How foods can help to improve your hormonal health?)

Tips to avoid food preservatives:
  • Buy and serve more fresh fruits and vegetables, and fewer processed meats, especially during pregnancy.
  • Wash hands thoroughly before and after touching food, and clean all fruits and vegetables well.
  • Cut back on canned foods and beverages in general.
  • Cut back on fast food and processed foods.
  • Read labels. Get familiar with each and every ingredient of the products you use.

The idea behind this article is not to make parents paranoid, rather the idea is to make them well informed, so that they can make some simple changes that can go a long way towards keeping their children healthier.

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