Although some preservatives are needed to keep food fresh, many foods children eat are full of unnecessary and unhealthful additives. These food additives, such a food coloring and sweeteners, make food more enticing to kids. They can also contribute to a variety of problems such as poor nutrition, obesity and hyperactivity problems, according to experts.
"There is no one that could give a blanket statement as to how preservatives affect children because each preservative must be considered on its own merit. However, parents can be given guidelines to reduce risks," explained Claire Hicks, PhD, Professor of Food Science, at the University of Kentucky.
Some preservatives are useful. They keep help keep food safe by serving as either antimicrobials (by preventing the growth of molds, yeasts and bacteria) or antioxidants (keeping foods from becoming rancid, browning, or developing black spots)—or both, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. As antioxidants, preservatives also suppress the reaction that occurs when foods combine with oxygen in the presence of light, heat and some metals. They also help guard against the damage to some essential amino acids and vitamin loss.
However, the safety issues surrounding preservatives is a continuously ongoing investigation. Scientists have been trying to determine the true benefits and risks of preservatives for the last 100 years, according to Dr. Hicks.
"Every time scientists think they have an answer for a particular additive or preservative, the answer sometimes changes a couple of decades later as scientists get more information. Also over the last decade our data tracking ability has dramatically improved. We can now follow and track problems, because of computers, that could not be observed from paper records just a decade ago. Thus, we had the highest confidence in some preservatives a decade ago that have been taken off the market today," she said.
The FDA has approved all preservatives used in foods. Most preservatives are on the "GRAS" (Generally Recognized As Safe) list. "When the compound is listed on the GRAS list the FDA has no reliable data suggesting that the compounds are unsafe when used at levels that are effective in the food. The next question that must be considered is the impact on health when preservatives are not used," Dr. Hicks said.