Does the FDA need to update its framework for the use of chemicals in food processing?

When it comes to deciding which chemicals are safe to use in food processing, the FDA has an extensive list of those that are considered to be a risk to the public. For children in particular, strict guidelines are essential to ensure they are not exposed to any dangerous chemicals in their food.

However, a leading US medical organisation, the American Academy of Paediatrics, has warned that the current framework is in desperate need of updating. The organisation, which represents over 60,000 paediatricians across the country, has recently released its newest policy statement.

It states that the current regulatory framework for certain chemicals used in food processing is outdated, and based on an older understanding of science. They have therefore urged that the government should update the methods they use when deciding if chemicals are safe.

Alongside this, a new technical report has shown that there’s increasing evidence that chemicals used in food processing like flavourings and colourings; as well as substances used in packaging, like adhesives and coatings; could pose negative health effects on younger consumers.

According to lead author, Dr. Leonardo Trasande, director of the Division of Environmental Paediatrics at New York University School of Medicine, the report features “some striking and surprising concerns about the lack of attention that these chemicals have received by regulatory agencies.”

He noted: “Pound for pound, children eat more food and therefore have a higher level of exposure compared to us adults. In addition, their developing organ systems are uniquely vulnerable. …There can be fundamental disruptions in various endocrine functions that can manifest not only in early childhood but potentially in later life as a result of prenatal or infant exposure.”

There are a number of chemicals which were highlighted in the report as being a key cause for concern. These include bisphenols, which are used in the lining of aluminium cans and were banned for use in baby bottles in 2012; phthalates, which are used in plastic packaging; perchlorates, which are used in food packaging; and nitrates, which are used as preservatives and food colourings.

“Chemicals used in everyday products need to be rigorously evaluated for their full potential of human health impacts before they are made widely available in the marketplace,” said Dr. Maida P. Galvez, an associate professor in the Department of Preventive Medicine and Paediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai.

Experts have warned that some of the potential side effects of these chemicals are thyroid hormone disruption, endocrine disruption brain development effects, increased risk of obesity and decreased birth weight.

“It’s not simply calories in, calories out,” Trasande said. “That used to be a convenient framework for thinking about obesity, but now we know that synthetic chemicals disrupt how calories are processed and ultimately converted into protein vs. sugar vs. fat.”

He added: “Even at a basic level, we understand that thyroid hormone is not only important for brain development but also heart function, bone function, muscle. Practically every organ system is touched by thyroid hormone function.”

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