Reducing the Risks
Experts disagree over the risks of preservatives. According to Manfred Kroger, Ph.D., Professor of Food Science Emeritus, The Pennsylvania State University, preservatives are all safe for human consumption, old and young included, although there may be individual reactions by some, as with sulfites or MSG.
"These "sensitive" people learn early on to exclude certain substances from the diet," he said, noting that parents should read the labels and avoid ingredients such as peanuts, eggs, and aspartame (the sweetener in most diet drinks) when there is a known problem.
However, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a leading nutrition advocacy organization in Washington, D.C., takes a harder stand against preservatives.
In general the group recommends that consumers stay away from sodium nitrite, saccharin, caffeine, olestra, acesulfame K, and artificial coloring. According to CPSI, these additives are "the most questionable" and also frequently used in foods of low nutritional value. CSPI also recommends using sugar and salt-the two most common preservatives—in moderation.
In the CPSI report, Chemical Cuisine, a list of the popular preservatives is broken down and labeled in a five-tier system. The ratings are: "appears to be safe," "cut back," "caution," "certain people should avoid," and "everyone should avoid."
For example, artificial coloring—used in many foods and candies marketed to children—is listed by different colors and types. Lack of sufficient health testing, risk of cancer, and hyperactivity (in some children) are some of the listed reasons to avoid. For more information visit Center for Science in the Public Interest website.
Parents can begin to ease up on preservatives in their children's diet by choosing fresh and whole (non-processed) foods first. They can also prepare their own foods or buy organic foods which are made without preservatives.
Dr. Hicks also suggested several guidelines for parents who want to reduce the risks associated with preservatives.
- Include fortified foods in children's diets.
- Enhance the variety of foods being offered to children (many foods contain natural toxins, thus parents should prepare meals from a wide variety of foods). "The old saying 'moderation in all things' holds true here," she said. "Many parents get caught up in serving children lots of soy or vegan diets which [potentially] impedes growth and health."
- Follow USDA recommendations for number of foods to eat per day in each food group.
- Encourage more exercise for children and help them avoid a sedentary life style.
Finally, Dr. Hicks noted that parents should watch for other pitfalls in their children's diet in addition to preservatives. "Most Americans and children consume too much fat and empty calories. These two issues are pushing the obesity issues in the United States," she concluded.