What Are the Dangers of Processed Foods for Children?

Many common grocery items contain additives and chemicals that could be harmful to your family.

Health-conscious parents may be surprised to find out how often they are likely putting their children at risk. Even if you know enough to avoid the drive-through "happy" foods and sugary sweets, you could be unwittingly filling your grocery cart with highly processed foods that can adversely affect your child's health. Pretty much any food that is packaged, canned, frozen or altered from its original form can be considered processed. Unless your food has been recently picked and prepared, there's a high chance it harbors chemicals that could be potentially harmful to your child.


Childhood obesity can lead to a lifetime of health problems.

John Foreyt, a spokesperson for the Baylor College of Medicine, estimates that 15 percent of all American children between the ages of 6 and 19, and 10 percent of those between 2 and 5, are overweight. The World Health Organization attributes the recent rise in childhood obesity to the popularity of high-calorie, low-nutrient processed foods. Children who regularly consume processed foods at restaurants may consume on average 126 calories more per day than kids eating more wholesome foods at home. This increase in caloric intake translates to roughly 13 pounds of added weight per year. Childhood obesity can lead to lifelong health problems, including high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.


Children who regularly consume processed foods may have an increased risk of developing pancreatic and other types of cancer as adults, according to a 2005 University of Hawaii study published in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute. A Canadian study published in Cancer Epidemiology, Mile Markers and Prevention, links the consumption of refined carbohydrates, including high fructose corn syrup and sugar, to cancer. French fries and potato chips -- frequent staples of a processed food diet -- contain high levels of the known carcinogen acrylamide, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Additive Risks

There are over 3,000 chemicals commonly added to processed foods. Some of these additives, which help to preserve and add texture, flavor or color to food products, have not been tested by the FDA for their long-term health effects and are considered to be "safe" until studies may prove them otherwise. Yellow Dye #5, or tartrazine, and Yellow Dye #6, for example, are found in thousands of popular processed food products marketed to children, including instant macaroni and cheese, some orange soda drinks and colored candies, cereals and marshmallows. They are sometimes used to add color to jarred pickles, vitamins, and chicken nuggets and may, according to a recent study conducted by Columbia University and The New York State Psychiatric Institute, contribute to symptoms of ADHD in children. One commonly used flavoring ingredient, monosodium glutamate, may cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms, including dizziness, nausea, headaches, inattention, chest pain, heart irregularities, muscle weakness and asthma or breathing difficulties in children with food sensitivities. Since 2005, diacetyl, an ingredient in butter flavoring, has been associated, along with other food flavoring additives, with bronchiolitis obliterans, a rare lung disease.

Lower IQ Scores

Eating too many processed foods during early childhood is associated with lower IQ scores.

A Bristol University study published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health demonstrated a link between the consumption of processed foods before the age of 3 and lower IQ scores at the age of 8. The long-term study looked at all aspects of children's lives, including lifestyle and genetics. In the eight-year research period, Dr. Pauline Emmett and Dr. Kate Northstone asked parents to report on their child's diet at age 3, 4, 7, and 8 years old. The findings showed that the children who consumed the most processed foods at the age of 3 were on average five IQ points behind their healthier eating peers by the time they turned 8. Processed food consumption after the age of 3 had little or no effect on IQ testing. This is most likely because the brain develops rapidly in the first three years of life and may benefit most from good nutrition during this period.