Nutrition is key, but don’t forget about food safety

October 31, 2019

Pediatricians often focus on nutrition, but educating parents about food additives and safety should be included.

We are what we eat, but unfortunately, we don’t always know everything about what we eat.

Pediatricians are often asked by parents about foods to avoid, or food safety concerns, but they might not understand all of the nuances about food safety issues.

“Most pediatricians probably think in the framework of is it healthy or not healthy, and they may not be thinking about the chemical exposures that could be occurring,” says Sheela Sathyanarayana, MD, MPH, FAAP, associate professor of pediatrics and adjunct professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington medical director of the newborn nursery, and director of the pediatric continuity clinic program at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle.

Dr. Sathyanarayana led a session titled, “Food Additive Safety: How to Advise Families About Flavors, Colors, Chemicals,” on October 28, 2019 at the 2019 American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Annual Conference and Exhibition in New Orleans, Louisiana.

The session covered food additive categories, data on the health effects of food additives, concern about exposure in children, and regulation of food additives. Dr. Sathyanarayana offered advice for pediatricians on guiding parents on ways to limit exposure to food additive and endocrine-disrupting chemicals.

Oftentimes, pediatricians are focused on nutrition and feeding practices because obesity has become such an epidemic problem, Dr. Sathyanarayana says.

“I think that a lot of pediatricians understand that processed foods likely contain components that are not good for our health,” Dr. Sathyanarayana says. “Processed foods are based on convenience, and it's hard when marketing is focused on this. It’s important to reinforce health, fresh foods.”

Although pediatricians aren’t expected to move regulatory mountains, Dr. Sathyanarayana says they should be aware of our government’s policies on food safety, particularly the risks posed by some foods in the “generally recognized as safe” category-a loophole that allows for shortcuts and has been recommended to be changed. There is a push at the regulatory level to take a deeper look at the health impact of chemicals that have been allowed into our food supply and to be more transparent, she adds.

Dr. Sathyanarayana co-authored guidance for AAP on food additives in 2018 and says the goal is to promote regulation revisions that create a safer food supply. As for the role of pediatricians, she says her goal is simply to raise awareness, and provide education similar to what she gives her patients.

“People tend to think, ‘It might be bad for me, but I don’t know why,’” Dr. Sathyanarayana says. “It’s about filling that gap.”

The main takeaway, she says, is that there are a number of direct and indirect food additives that are not well-regulated and could have harmful health effects in children. Some ways to minimize these effects include reinforcing key messages, like promoting the consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, avoiding microwaving food in plastics, avoiding heating and eating food in packaging, and avoiding processed meats. As for more proactive efforts, Dr. Sathyanarayana says some pediatricians have found a lot of success in organizing clinics for families on preparing healthy meals. For more suggestions, see the full guidance from AAP.