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12 Food Additives Lurking in Your Kids' Homemade Lunch

The Lancet Medical Journal Reports that food colors and additives cause hyperactivity and ADHD

Written by Aubrey Taylor | Healthy Magazine

"In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children..." ~ President Harry Truman

School lunch gets a bad rap for its lackluster nutrition. But when well-meaning parents resort to the classic brown bag, they fill it with foods that may do more harm than good. Convenient, pre-packaged snacks and deli meats are laden with the same preservatives and additives in tater tots, chicken patties and other lunch tray classics. To make sure you serve up the best nutrition for your aspiring little scholars (and your whole family), avoid these 12 harmful additives.

1. Trans Fats

With fats, we have the good (unsaturated), the bad (saturated), and the ugly (trans fats). Trans fats, a.k.a. partially hydrogenated oils, disable the body's natural fat digestion and excretion mechanisms, so trans fats camp out in your arteries indefinitely. Thus, studies prove that trans fats increase LDL (bad) cholesterol, decrease HDL (good) cholesterol, and cause heart disease. Lunch Busters: chicken nuggets, tater tots, chips, crackers, Quaker Chewy Granola Bars, and any and all packaged pastries. Additive Alternatives: Look for snacks that say, "No Trans Fats." Then double-check the ingredients for hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils. At home, use real butter, olive oil, or trans fat-free margarines.

2. Aspartame

Known by the brands NutraSweet and Equal, the artificial sweetener Aspartame is one of the creepiest additives in so-called diet foods. "So-called" because Aspartame actually makes you crave carbs, promoting weight gain. Scary things happen when Aspartame hits 86?F - its chemicals convert to formaldehyde and then formic acid. The result: a lethal toxicity that may cause cancer and neurological problems, and causes side effects that mimics the symptoms of multiple sclerosis and systemic lupus. Lunch Busters: low-calorie desserts, drink mixes, and diet sodas and juices. Additive Alternatives: The best low-cal dessert is fresh, frozen or dried fruit. For natural sweetness, try agave, honey or Stevia as a sugar replacement. Swap sodas for lightly carbonated, flavored mineral water, like Talking Rain® or Hansen's Natural Soda.

3. Sodium Nitrate (also called Sodium Nitrite)

One of the most common culprits in homemade school lunch, this preservative, coloring, and flavoring is almost always added to meat products. Studies have linked eating it to various types of cancer. Lunch Busters: packaged meats like lunchmeat, hot dogs, bacon, smoked fish, and corned beef. Additive Alternatives: Canned tuna fish or canned chicken sandwiches made with light mayo. Or replace meats with PB&J (with all-natural PB) on whole wheat.

4. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Commonly associated with Chinese food, the amino acid MSG enhances flavor. It commonly causes headaches and nausea - not what your 5th-grader needs after lunch recess. Also, animal studies link MSG to damaged nerve cells in the brains of infant mice. Lunch Busters: soups, salad dressings, chips, frozen entrees, and cafeteria food. Additive Alternatives: Choose all-natural versions of the culprits listed above.

5. BHA and BHT

If you can't pronounce it, don't eat it. Butylated hydroxyanisole and butylated hydrozyttoluene are the main source of free radicals lurking in your snack pantry. These oxidative chemicals mutilate (sounds like butylate) into reactive, cancer-causing free radicals in your body. Lunch Busters: cereals, most chewing gum, potato chips, and vegetable oils. Additive Alternatives: Grocery shelves abound with "all-natural" cereals and chips. See our favorite brands below.

6. Propyl Gallate

Another preservative, often used in conjunction with BHA and BHT, animal studies suggest that propyl gallate could be linked to cancer. Lunch Busters: meat products, chicken soup base, and chewing gum.

7. Acesulfame-K

This relatively new artificial sweetener lacks sufficient testing, yet some early studies show it may cause cancer in rats. Lunch Busters: baked goods, most chewing gum, and gelatin desserts. Additive Alternatives: Splenda® brand sweetener and gums sweetened with xylitol, a sugar substitute endorsed by the American Dental Association to reduce tooth decay, prevent cavities, and clean teeth after eating.

8. Food Colorings

Five food colorings still on the market are linked with cancer in animal testing.

Blue 1 and 2: linked to cancer in mice Lunch Busters: beverages, candy, and baked goods.

Red 3: caused thyroid tumors in rats Lunch Busters: dyed cherries, fruit cocktail, candy, and baked goods.

Green 3: linked to bladder cancer Lunch Busters: candy and beverages.

Yellow 6: linked to adrenal gland and kidney tumors Lunch Busters: beverages, sausage, gelatin, baked goods, and candy. Additive Alternatives: Natural products do not use artificial colors. Look for "no artificial colors" on the label - and swap candy for dried fruit and natural fruit leathers.

9. Olestra

Olestra, a synthetic fat used in some low-fat potato chip brands, can cause severe diarrhea, abdominal cramps and gas. Olestra also inhibits antioxidant absorption of fat-soluble carotenoids found in fruits and veggies. Additive Alternatives: For your potato chip fix, try all-natural, low-fat popchips™. These never fried, never baked chips come in nine satiating flavors.

10. Potassium Bromate

Bread companies add potassium bromate to increase volume in some white flour, breads, and rolls. It causes cancer in animals, and even small amounts in bread pose a risk to humans. Lunch Busters: white flour bread products. Additive Alternatives: For the umpteenth time, buy whole grain breads and flour. To make sure you and your kiddos get the full benefits of "whole grains," look for at least 3 grams of fiber per slice of bread.

11. Added Sugar

High-fructose corn syrup appears in nearly everything (even bread!), fueling our national diabetes and obesity epidemic, especially in children. The problem with HFCS - your body doesn't know how to digest it, so it ends up stored in the discard pile as fat. Keep added sugars out of your kids' lunch boxes by keeping them out of your pantry. Lunch Busters: juice, granola bars, baked goods, cereals, crackers, sauces, condiments, and most processed foods. Additive Alternatives: Look for 100% juice, whole fruits, and products that say "no sugar added" (with no artificial sweeteners).

12. Salt

A dash of salt can enhance flavor, but the key is moderation. Too much salt, listed as sodium on food labels, can threaten your health, leading to high blood pressure, heart attack, stroke, and kidney failure. Packaged foods can pack as much sodium into one serving as the FDA recommends for an entire day.
Lunch Busters: lunchmeats, canned soup, Cup-O-Noodles, and microwavable what-have-yous. Additive Alternatives: Look for low- or reduced-sodium versions of the above salt licks.

All-natural brands we love: Amy's®, Bear Naked®, Kashi®, Kettle™ Brand Chips, Muir Glen®, Nature's Path®, popchips™, Stacy's®.

For more info on school lunch nutrition from Chef Ann, the Renegade Lunch Lady of California, visit

  • Pocket Guide of Additives to Avoid
  • Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite
  • BHA and BHT
  • Propyl Gallate
  • MSG (monosodium glutamate)
  • Trans fats (hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated fats)
  • Aspartame
  • Acesulfame-K
  • Blue 1, 2
  • Red 3
  • Green 3
  • Yellow 6
  • Olestra
  • Potassium Bromate
  • White Sugar and high-fructose corn syrup
  • Salt (sodium)
  • Article Reviewed: January 22, 2016
    Copyright © 2015 Healthy Magazine

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