10 Toxic Things You Didn’t Know You Were Feeding Your Kids

Updated: Mar. 14, 2022

You want the best for your children, naturally, so that's why you need to know about the harmful substances that might be in their food as we speak.


Brominated vegetable oil

This sounds like something you might cook with, but it’s not. Instead, this additive keeps citrus flavorings from separating in sports drinks and sodas. “People who drink extremely large amounts of soda containing brominated vegetable oil have experienced bromine toxicity,” says Lisa Lefferts, MSPH, a senior scientist at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. Some cases found skin, nerve, and memory problems from the substance. “The effects from smaller amounts are unclear, but the fact that BVO leaves residues in body fat and in the fat in brain, liver, and other organs is unsettling,” Lefferts says. Although it’s banned in Japan and Europe, BVO was granted “interim status” by the FDA in the 1970s pending further studies—but those studies were never done. Several years ago, PepsiCo removed it from Gatorade after a high school sophomore started an online petition. “After consumer pressure, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola agreed to remove it from all of their beverages—but it is still found in Mountain Dew and Diet Mountain Dew,” Lefferts says. So before letting your kids drink sodas, sport drinks, or other fruity beverages (which aren’t good for them anyway), check the label.



Toxic chemicals are commonly used to kill pests on many fruits and vegetables young children like to eat. “One of the top issues I’m working on is getting a very toxic pesticide named chlorpyrifos out of the food supply,” says Miriam Rotkin-Ellman, MPH, a senior scientist with the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “The testing that’s been done for residue finds it on apples, berries, melon (even on the inside), oranges, bananas—the kinds of fruits that are on the table for children.” The science shows, she says, that the pesticide is toxic to the developing brain of children. “There are a number of studies linking exposure to the pesticide to learning disabilities and increased behavioral problems like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and other problems, because the developing brain is so sensitive,” Rotkin-Ellman says. Even after washing, the residue remains, so the best option is to buy organic fruits and veggies for your children—as well as yourself if you’re pregnant, since studies also link exposure in the womb to developmental problems later on. “Australian research published in the journal Environmental Research showed that when study participants switched to eating a diet of at least 80 percent organic food for just one week, their urinary analyses revealed a dramatic 89 percent reduction in detectable levels of [certain] pesticides,” say Mira Calton, a certified nutritionist, and Jayson Calton, PhD, authors of Rich Food Poor Food. Here are 50 secrets food manufacturers don’t tell you that could change the way you eat.

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You’ve probably heard of the poison arsenic, but you probably don’t know that it’s present in high levels in a food your kids probably eat a lot of: rice. “Arsenic in its inorganic form is a known human carcinogen, and is very potent,” Lefferts says. “It can also affect children’s ability to learn.” It’s of special concern for children because many of their first foods, including cereal and puffed snacks, are rice-based. “Rice takes up arsenic from soil and water more readily than other grains,” Lefferts says. “The FDA has proposed action levels for inorganic arsenic in infant rice cereal (100 parts per billion) and apple juice (10 ppb)—steps in the right direction.” Similar limits have already been set in Europe. According to the FDA, rice intake for infants relative to their body weight is three times greater than it is for adults, and studies have shown arsenic can have developmental effects in children. Lefferts advises feeding your children a variety of grains and other foods to make sure they aren’t ingesting too much of the toxin.

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This group of chemicals is found in many plastics, including food containers. “Phthalates are endocrine-disrupting chemicals, so they interfere with the hormones that are involved in the growth and development of a fetus and infant, reproductive development as well as brain development,” Rotkin-Ellman says. When possible, avoid storing food in plastic containers. “There’s a brand of sauerkraut I really like, and even better it comes in this wide-mouthed jar that I reuse over and over again for my lunches,” says Jennifer Sass, PhD, a senior scientist at the NRDC. While glass can be tricky with young children, it’s still best to avoid plastic when you can. Unfortunately, phthalate exposure can still crop up where you least expect it, Dr. Sass says. “They’re in a lot of fatty foods, especially dairy products—the plastics could be tubing, could be gloves, so anywhere along the processing and producing of these foods,” she says. This is even the case for organic products. “Organic doesn’t make a difference because the organic standard doesn’t apply these kinds of processing materials,” she says. So how can you avoid it? “One thing people can do very easily is pick lower fat dairy: non-fat or low-fat milk, and the same with yogurt and ice cream.”



Another food packaging concern you might have heard about is bisphenol-A (BPA). It’s found in a lot of plastics as well, although many food containers are now marked “BPA-free,” and the FDA no longer allows it in baby bottles, sippy cups, or infant formula containers—although they only disallowed it after the industry voluntarily removed it. “A growing body of evidence links low levels of BPA [another endocrine disrupter] to harmful effects, especially from exposures before birth and early in life,” Lefferts says. “These effects include cancer, behavioral disturbances, and damage to the male and female reproductive system, and the developing brain.” But besides plastics, BPA crops up in other places you might not expect: canned food. “The lining in the inside of the can has a lot of BPA in it, and the testing that has been done of canned foods shows a lot of BPA in the food, particularly for the things that are really high acidity, such as anything that has a tomato base,” Rotkin-Ellman says. So much for your kid’s favorite pasta dish! So when you’re buying tomato products, “look for it in a glass jar or in those juice-box type containers,” she says. Even cans that say “BPA-free” might not be safe, as the replacement chemicals haven’t been tested and could be just as bad. Here are other toxic chemicals that can clog your arteries.

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Food coloring

Those brightly colored cereals, candy, and sports drinks likely contain food dyes that could be harmful for children. “Red 40, Yellow 5, and other synthetic food dyes can trigger adverse behavior like hyperactivity in some children,” Lefferts says. In Europe, she says, the label “may have an adverse effect on attention and activity in children” is required on foods containing certain dyes, including Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, three colors that make up over 90 percent of the synthetic dyes used in food in the U.S. In addition, these dyes may trigger allergic reactions such as hives, itching, and swelling in sensitive individuals. Plus, “certain food dyes pose a very slight risk of cancer,” Lefferts says. “In 1990, the FDA concluded that Red 3 was a carcinogen based on animal feeding studies and banned some uses of it, including in cosmetics and externally applied drugs, but most uses are still permitted in food and ingested drugs.” Dr. Sass it can be difficult to figure out exactly which food colorings are used in processed foods. “An ingredient could be ‘natural and artificial colors,’ so you don’t really know what’s in there or how much of it,” she says. To be on the safe side, “just don’t pick the brightly colored, highly processed food.” Some companies have also started bowing to consumer pressure: Kraft announced in 2015 that its brightly colored Macaroni & Cheese would be free of dyes including Yellow 5 and 6, and instead would use paprika and turmeric.


Microwave popcorn bags and other food wrappings

Mmm, the buttery goodness of the smell of a freshly opened bag of microwave popcorn. While it’s a quick and yummy snack, the lining of the bags could emit harmful chemicals in the good-smelling steam. “Microwave popcorn generally uses heat-susceptor packaging, a plastic coated metal strip or disk which absorbs the microwave energy and makes the package function essentially as a frying pan,” Lefferts says. “Perfluorinated chemicals are used as grease-proofing agents on microwave popcorn bags as well as fast-food wrappers and other containers. The high temperatures may release chemicals from adhesives, polymers, paper, and paperboard into the food.” According to the CDC, some studies have shown that these chemicals may affect childhood development and are also linked with cancer. A recent study found that perfluorinated chemicals were also found in fast food wrappings, like burger and sandwich wrappers, french fry containers, Chinese food containers, and pizza boxes—and previous research has shown the chemicals can leach into food. “The Food and Drug Administration hasn’t really scrutinized the safety of those chemicals,” Rotkin-Ellman says. “It’s also another reason to rethink eating those kinds of super greasy foods.” What are some foods even professional chefs cook in the microwave?



Artificial sweeteners may seem better for your kids than sugar, but research as to the safety of them, specifically aspartame, is worrisome. “Three different studies in animals show that it causes cancer in animals,” Lefferts says. “Those studies, which were performed by an independent laboratory, are more sensitive and better-designed than the old industry-sponsored studies of aspartame, which were negative. Also, the largest and best study in humans suggests that it may cause cancer.” She says this is of particular concern for children because early exposure to carcinogens is usually more harmful than later in life. Although the American Cancer Society calls some of these studies into question, there could be other problems with aspartame. Recent research from Massachusetts General Hospital found the artificial sweeteners could interfere with an enzyme that helps the body prevent obesity, diabetes, and weight gain. To be safe, you may want to avoid feeding your kids yogurts and other sweets flavored with aspartame, and stick with sugar (in moderation) instead. Read more on why diet soda may be making you fat.


Antibiotics in dairy and meat

Another reason to go organic is to avoid products from animals that were given antibiotics or growth hormones. “Antibiotics can’t be used in organic livestock raising, but there are also independent statements for meat that is not organic but that was raised without antibiotics,” Rotkin-Ellman says. “Those offer a significant advantage for public health in terms of combating antibiotic resistant bacteria.” In addition, look for livestock raised without recombinant bovine growth hormone (rBGH), which has been banned in Canada and the U.S. This and other hormones makes cows produce more milk and grow faster, and although the effects on humans aren’t well studied, there are concerns that it could cause everything from early puberty in children to cancer. Mira and Jayson Calton say that even better than just organic beef and dairy is grass-fed, because animals fed a better diet are healthier and require fewer antibiotics and hormones in the first place. “A joint research study between the USDA and Clemson University found that compared to grain-fed beef, grass-fed beef has higher amounts of calcium, magnesium, thiamine, riboflavin, and potassium; has over 400 percent more vitamin A and vitamin E; and is up to four times richer in heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids,” they say.


Processed meats

In addition to other problems with meats, the International Agency for Research on Cancer, the cancer agency of the World Health Organization, classified processed meats including hot dogs, ham, and other deli meats as carcinogens. The studies the agency reviewed showed that eating a hot dog a day raised the risk of colorectal cancer by 18 percent. “We should be limiting red and processed meat to help reduce colon cancer risk, and possibly, the risk of other cancers,” Colleen Doyle, MS, RD, the American Cancer Society managing director of nutrition and physical activity, said in a statement. Children shouldn’t be eating that many hot dogs anyway, but “the occasional hot dog or hamburger is okay,” she says. Read about more foods cancer docs try to never eat.