Foods Under Fire

Mercury in fish. Trans-fatty acids. Carb overload. You've heard the scary food news. Now get the scoop on what's really safe to feed your children.


by Gary Drevitch

Copyright © 2005 G+J Publishing, Inc.

PARENTS Magazine August 2005


The Scare: Nonorganic Produce

The Danger: Some people worry that pesticides and herbicides sprayed on fruits and vegetables elevate cancer risk. As a result, they buy organic produce, which costs 30 to 50 percent more.

The Reality: There's no evidence that these chemicals, used at the low levels found in our food supply, are harmful to children, says Melvin Heyman, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the University of California, San Francisco. Still, organic crops are produced without synthetic fertilizers, and growing methods conserve soil and water.

The Bottom Line: Feed your little ones lots of fruits and veggies, whether they're organic or not. They're a prime source of fiber, cancer-preventing antioxidants, and essential vitamins. Thoroughly wash all fruits and vegetables with warm water. Use a brush on vegetables with edible skin. Also, remove the outer layers of lettuce, cabbage, and other leafy vegetables. If you're still concerned about conventional pesticides, choose organic produce.


The Scare: Trans-Fats

The Danger: Trans-fatty acids, synthetic fats created by a food-processing technique called "hydrogenation," can cause clogged arteries that can lead to heart disease. These fats are present in snack foods such as french fries, potato chips, cookies, crackers, and premade puddings. The FDA will require food companies to add trans-fat information to all product labels by 2006.

The Reality: Check ingredients lists and limit your child's intake of products containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil.

The Bottom Line: Trans fats can pose long-term heart risks to both children and adults. Reduce your family's consumption by substituting natural snacks for processed ones, and by cooking with fresh ingredients instead of relying on highly processed, prepackaged foods.


The Scare: Tap Water

The Danger: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 31 recorded outbreaks of disease caused by contaminated drinking-water supplies in the U.S. from 2001 to 2002. In addition, lead contamination from corroded pipes can cause brain damage or behavioral and developmental disorders in children. These threats have led many families to switch to bottled water, despite the high cost.

The Reality: In the big picture, 31 outbreaks is a very small number. "In most parts of this country, tap water is perfectly safe to drink," says Fima Lifshitz, M.D., director of pediatrics at Sansum Medical Research Institute, in Santa Barbara, California. Federal water-purity standards are high, and systems are monitored regularly for toxins.

The Bottom Line: Check for water advisories in your area at or call 800-426-4791. If contaminant levels in your area are elevated, get a filtration system (log on to to find approved devices) or buy bottled water. If your tap water is fine, stick with it. It's a lot cheaper, and—unlike most bottled waters—it typically contains enough fluoride to help prevent tooth decay and strengthen bones.


The Scare: Peanuts

The Danger: During the past five years, the percentage of U.S. kids under age 5 with peanut allergies has doubled, says Parents adviser Hugh Sampson, M.D., professor of pediatrics at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York City. For these children, peanuts cause reactions ranging from skin rashes to potentially fatal anaphylactic shock.

The Reality: Less than 1 percent of children have peanut allergies. Your child is far more likely to be allergic if you, your spouse, or another of your children has food allergies, eczema, asthma, or hay fever.

The Bottom Line: If your child is in the high-risk category, avoid peanut products until she's 3. Otherwise, the American Academy of Pediatrics says it's safe to introduce peanut butter at age 2 (but avoid feeding your child peanuts until age 7, because they're a choking hazard).


The Scare: Mercury in Fish

The Danger: This toxic metal can damage a child's developing nervous system. The FDA and the EPA have advised pregnant women, nursing mothers, and young children to avoid eating shark, swordfish, king mackerel, and tilefish (which contain high levels of mercury) and to limit intake of albacore (white) tuna to six ounces per week.

The Reality: If your child is plowing through two cans of tuna a week, switch to canned light tuna (up to 12 ounces per week is considered safe). Otherwise, be happy that he's consuming an excellent source of protein and omega-3 fatty acids, which help prevent heart disease.

The Bottom Line: Worried about mercury poisoning? Try shrimp, scallops, and wild salmon, which are rich in protein and low in mercury.


The Scare: Bovine Growth Hormone (bGH)

The Danger: Many parents are concerned that this hormone, injected into cows to boost milk production, could cause cancer or abnormal growth in their children. As a result, some have switched to organic or soy milk.

The Reality: The FDA says bGH, which passes through the human body without being absorbed, is safe. A far bigger risk is calcium deficiency, which affects 30 percent of kids ages 1 to 5. Soy is not a calcium source.

The Bottom Line: "You've got to get milk into your kids," says Diekman. "It's essential for building healthy teeth and bones." If you do decide to switch to soy, make sure it's fortified with calcium.


The Scare: Mad-Cow Disease

The Danger: A diseased cow purchased from Canada was discovered in Washington State in December 2003, leading to fear of a mad-cow disease outbreak like the one that killed dozens in the United Kingdom.

The Reality: Cows become infected by consuming feed that contains contaminated cow tissue. Since the U.S. banned most feed made from animal parts in 1997, the odds of mad cow being a problem for your family are minuscule, says nutritionist Connie Diekman, R.D., a Parents adviser.

The Bottom Line: Red meat is an excellent source of iron, which is vital for proper development in children. While there's little need to worry about mad-cow disease, food-borne illnesses caused by pathogens—such as E. coli, salmonella, and listeria—are bigger threats. To be safe, use or freeze beef within three to five days of purchase; use hot, soapy water to clean everything, including your hands, that comes into contact with the meat; keep it separate from other foods to avoid cross-contamination; and always cook beef to its proper minimum temperature (160 degrees Fahrenheit for ground meat, 145 degrees for steaks and roasts).


The Scare: Carbohydrates

The Danger: Childhood obesity is soaring, and carbohydrates have become Food Enemy Number One in the wake of the super-popular Atkins and South Beach diets.

The Reality: Children need carbohydrates for brain development and essential energy. A child who doesn't consume enough carbs (approximately 40 to 60 percent of her total calories) will begin to burn protein instead, which could stunt her growth and damage her kidneys.

The Bottom Line: Don't put your child on a low-carb diet. But do limit her intake of the simple carbohydrates found in candy, cookies, and soda. Encourage her to eat fiber- and nutrient-rich carbs such as fruits, vegetables, and whole-wheat breads. If you're worried about her weight, emphasize proper portion size and exercise.