Ask the Expert – Additives and Preservatives to Avoid in Kids Snacks

Ask The Expert is a weekly column on Littlestomaks.com. The idea is to have a reader-submitted question answered by a nutrition expert or a pediatrician. Feel free to submit your question in the comments section below.

Packaged snacks offer the convenience of a quick bite to eat when you are on-the-go with your kids, but they can contain potentially harmful additives and preservatives.  This week, Registered Dietitian Danielle Omar offers a handy list of what to avoid and what may be ok. Bottom line, read the nutritional facts label and scrutinize the ingredients list. And yes, don’t fall for the front-of-the box labeling!

Danielle Omar, MS, RD
  • BS Dietetics, MS Health Science – James Madison University
  • Experience – Registered Dietitian, Media Resource, Blogger and Educator
  • Expert in Weight management, sports nutrition, family nutrition, wellness and nutrition communications
  • Currently in private practice helping professionals and families navigate busy, hectic lives with the power of food confidence
  • Website: The Food Confidence Expert
  • Twitter: @2eatwellRD
  • LinkedIn Profile
  • Contact: via email Danielle@foodconfidence.com

Question: What additives and preservatives should I avoid when choosing packaged snacks for my kids?

Answer:

Although we would all love to offer our children only fresh fruit, veggies, and whole foods for snacks, packaged food is sometimes a convenient necessity when feeding kids.  Unfortunately, there’s a huge market for these types of foods and the nutritional value ranges from good, to not so bad, to really, really bad!   As a Dietitian and mom to a 2 ½ year old, I know it’s a little unrealistic to shield my daughter from all packaged snacks, but armed with the right information I can make the best choice possible.

Besides the well-known offenders (high fructose corn syrup, white flour, and Trans fat), there are actually certain food additives and ingredients that you should limit or avoid when selecting snacks.  In studies, artificial ingredients like flavoring, coloring, and preservatives have been linked to allergies, hyperactivity, asthma, eczema, headaches, and fatigue in children.

When choosing packaged snacks, the best defense as a parent is to read the food label.  Front of package labeling is part of product advertising and may be misleading, so the best place to look first is the ingredient list.  This is where you’ll find all of the ingredients listed in descending order – from the most prevalent to the least.  The first few ingredients are going to be making up most of the food item, so you will want to pay special attention to what is listed there.  You also want to be cautious of how many ingredients are listed; in general, the more ingredients the food has, the more processed it is, and the less healthy it may be.  This is because the farther away from “real food” the product is, the more artificial flavor, color, fillers, and preservatives it will need to look and taste like the real thing.  Below is a detailed list of preservatives and additives that get the “OK” and those that should probably be limited (and in some cases completely avoided) when choosing packaged snacks.  For speedy label reading I suggest keeping a list in your purse or wallet.   Processed foods will inherently contain additives and preservatives, but with some careful consideration and good label reading, you can make the best choice possible for your family.

Limit or Avoid these ingredients:
Additives & Preservatives:

  • Artificial and natural flavoring
  • Sulfites: sodium sulfite; sodium bisulfate; potassium bisulfate; sodium metabisulfite; potassium metabisulfite
  • Nitrates: nitrates (may be listed as sodium nitrate; sodium nitrite)
  • Benzoate preservatives:  butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA);  butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT)
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG): may be listed as autolyzed yeast extract; hydrolyzed vegetable protein; yeast extract; disodium inosinate; disodium guanylate

Fat substitutes:

  • Olestra

Artificial Coloring:

  • Blue 2, Green 3, Orange B, Red 3, Red 3, and Yellow 5 & 6

Artificial Sweeteners:

  • Acesulfame Potassium
  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet)
  • Saccharin (Sweet & Low)

Salt:

  • Listed as sodium on Nutrition Facts Panel or sodium chloride on ingredient list
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)and sodium benzoate also add to sodium levels

These ingredients are OK:
Additives & Preservatives:

  • ascorbic acid and ascorbyl palmitate; alpha tocopherol; calcium or sodium propionate
  • alginate; cellulose or cellulose gums; carrageen
  • citric acid and sodium citrate; lactic acid; malic acid; tartaric acid
  • dextrin; gelatin; glycerin; inulin; lecithin
  • mono and diglycerides
  • phosphates; polysorbate 60; sorbitan monstearate

Coloring:

  • fruit and vegetable extracts; beet juice concentrate; beta carotene; carmine

Sweeteners:

  • honey, agave, fruit or fruit concentrate; cane juice; brown rice syrup; molasses; oligofructose

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Disclaimer – Information provided in Ask The Expert column on Littlestomaks.com is intended to give you general guidance on a question related to toddler nutrition. It is not meant to be treated as medical advice. You are welcome to contact this expert for a detailed consultation on your specific situation to determine what actions, if any, you should take regarding nutrition and health of your toddlers. We do not recommend you to take any action based solely on the information presented in this column. Experts have agreed to provide their professional opinion on toddler nutrition related questions on a voluntary basis and no compensation is offered to them by Littlestomaks.com.

5 comments

  1. calima

    I recently bought some agave nectar, and loved the taste (mild) and that it dissolves very easily in cold liquids, but after reading some information about it I realized it was mostly composed of fructose… so my question now is: What is the difference between agave syrup and high fructose corn syrup? They seem very similar to me…

  2. TwinToddlersDad

    Hi Calima
    About your question concerning agave nectar and HFCS – bottom line is that there is no difference except the source. Agave nectar is produced from the agave plant while the high fructose corn syrup, as the name implies, comes from processing corn. The exact ratio of fructose to glucose may be different, which mainly affects the degree of sweetness. Agave nectar may be labeled as more “natural”, but that is really more of a marketing hype. Use sparingly and reserve them for treats!

    • Kingbreto

      There is a big difference between high fructose corn syrup and fructose.  Like you said, HFCS is highly processed and bad, but “Fructose” is simply fruit sugar, which is actually better to use than table (white) sugar.  It is not marketing hype.

  3. Anonymous

    So just out of curiosity, I was wondering why TBHQ isnt on the page anywhere? I know there is a lot of controversy about this preservative as well as the other petroleum based preservatives but I would like to know what you think about it. I have eliminated this as well as BHT, BHA, artificial colors, and flavors from my 3 year olds diet and mine. Now I’m working on the nitrates.

  4. RD

    Do you have evidenced based references for why/why not to use these?

Comments are closed.