Your children might love sandwiches, hot dogs, and the occasional sweet treat, but many of the foods they’re eating contain chemicals that can affect their health, development and behavior. What’s more, most of these chemicals have been banned in other countries for years while the U.S. lags behind.  

Here are some of the most common chemicals lurking in your children’s food and what you can do to avoid them and take action to create change.

1. Food dyes
According to a recent survey by Kalsec, a natural spice and flavor company, 80 percent of people are worried about the artificial petrochemical dyes used in foods and beverages for children. These chemicals, which are made from petroleum, areadded to cereal, candy and drinks to make them more appealing. The most common are Red #40, Yellow #5 and #6 and Blue #1 and #2.

These food dyes may be linked to behavioral problems, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). They are also a known possible carcinogen and neurotoxin which can impair the development and function of the nervous system, said Dr. Rachel Mitchell, a chiropractor, children’s wellness advocate  and author of “The Birthday Party Diet: Exposed.”

In countries where food dyes are banned, brands like Fruit Loops® will use natural coloring agents like spinach, black currant, carrots and paprika instead.

“We have companies which are creating better products for the European and U.K. markets and keeping their inferior product with known dangerous chemicals for children in the U.S.,” Mitchell said.

2. rBGH and rBST
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), also kwown asrecombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST), is a synthetic hormone that some companies give cows to increase their milk supplies. Cows given the hormones have more mastitis infections and as a result, are given more antibiotics. Although this is good for big business, exposure to these hormones has been linked to cancer and is contributing to antibiotic resistance, Mitchell said.  

3. Arsenic
Arsenic is a highly toxic contaminant that has been linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and other serious health conditions. Arsenic may be found in foods that contain rice, including rice cereal for babies and protein bars for kids. Many companies are also using rice syrup as an alternative sweetener to corn syrup, even in juices that are marketed as healthy, said Kelly Herman, the Program Director for Healthy Child Healthy World, Environmental Working Group.

4. Nitrates and Nitrites
Nitrates and nitrites are preservatives that give foods color and prolong shelf life. They also show up in drinking water. Exposure to the contaminates has been linked to cancer in adults and a rare condition known as methemoglobinemia, or “baby blue syndrome,” found in babies exposed to contaminated water used to make infant formula.  

Nitrates and nitrites are found in all sandwich meats, bacon, hot dogs, canned beans, soups and vegetables, unless they’re organic. Some canned tuna, sardines and baby clams contain them as well, Herman said. Foods that have the preservatives will clearly state it on the label as in “potassium nitrate” or “sodium nitrate.” Yet even if the label states the food contains less than one percent, the manufacturer can’t truly determine the amount, Herman added.

5. Ractopamine
Ractopamine is a drug used to bulk up cattle and turkeys before they’re slaughtered. Eighty percent of pig herds, 30 percent of beef herds and almost all non-organic turkey contain ractopamine, Mitchell said.  The drug carries a warning that it’s not for use in humans and when it’s given to pigs, farmers must wear protective clothing and take certain precautions.

There has only been one human study on the effects of ractopamine, which showed that out of six healthy men, one dropped out because of adverse health effects. The drug has been linked to hyperactivity, behavioral problems, tremors, muskoskeletal, cardiovascular, endocrine and reproductive problems and death. What’s more, because it’s an anti-asthmatic drug, it may also increase children’s resistance to asthma drugs, Mitchell said.

6. Mercury
Sure, the omega-3 fatty acids found in fish are healthy, but mercury is a neurotoxin that studies show can affect young children whose brains are still developing. The effects can show up as developmental delays, short attention spans and learning disabilities. Mercury is highest in all types of tuna including fresh, frozen and canned.

7. Azodicarbonamide
Known as the “yoga mat” chemical because it is found in the exercise equipment, azodicarbonamide makes bread softer and is a whitening agent used in cereal flour. When bread with azodicarbonamide is baked, it breaks down into two chemicals, semicarbazide and urethane, which have been linked to cancer and asthma.

8. Potassium Bromate
Found in most foods that contain flour, potassium bromate is an additive that strengthens dough and allows it to rise higher. Classified as a possible carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, potassium bromate, a form of bromide, is also an endocrine disruptor.

It competes for the same receptor as iodine in the thyroid gland, inhibiting thyroid hormone production and resulting in a low thyroid state, Mitchell said. The effect on the thyroid can cause fatigue, poor memory and concentration, weight gain, poor appetite, shortness of breath and hearing problems.  

9. BHA and BHT.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are two chemical preservatives that are used to keep cereal fresh after it’s been on the shelf or in your pantry for months. It’s also found in nut mixes, butter, meat and chewing gum. In California, BHA is classified as a carcinogen and products that use it carry a warning label. Although the FDA classifies BHA and BHT as “Generally Recognized as Safe” or GRAS, the National Toxicology Program says it’s “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”

How to reduce your exposure:

Eat whole foods.
One of the best ways to avoid these toxins is to eat a whole foods diet, with plenty of organic fruits and vegetables and a limited amount of packaged and processed foods.

Color food naturally.
Have fun with natural and healthy food colors by making your own pink frosting with strawberries or green muffins with spinach, for example.

Read labels.
Be vigilant about reading food labels to spot nasty chemicals. Look for meat and dairy labeled “rBGH and rBST-free” and choose organic when possible.

Nix the tuna fish sandwich.
Instead of tuna, offer salmon, rainbow trout, sardines, mussels or Atlantic mackerel.

“Those are the only fish that are safe in terms of being lowest in mercury and the highest in omega-3s,” Herman said.

Drink clean water.
Obtain your drinking water quality report from your water supplier to check for nitrites and other contaminants. If the report shows a trace amount, treat your water with a home water distiller, a reverse osmosis filter or an ion exchange filter.

Swap grains.
In place of rice for both babies and kids, try other grains such as quinoa, oatmeal, or millet. If you do choose to eat rice, use brown rice instead.  Rinse it thoroughly for a few minutes and then boil it in a lot of water the same way you do when you cook pasta.

Take a stand.
Contact your local legislators to voice your concerns about chemicals in food or Healthy Child Healthy World, Environmental Working Group for more information about what you can do.

Julie Revelant is a health journalist and a consultant who provides content marketing and copywriting services for the healthcare industry. She's also a mom of two. Learn more about Julie at revelantwriting.com.