child eating food

As parents, it’s our job to make sure our children are being raised in the healthiest environment possible. One of the keys to this is ensuring that their diet is nutritious and healthy. While some kids can be picky eaters, we still need to make sure they are getting what their bodies need to grow.

The best advice is to focus on whole foods — fruits, vegetables, pastured meats, and whole grains. However, many families are busy and must rely on packaged foods more often than desirable. Most packaged foods today contain a lot of ingredients, and it can be difficult to decipher what everything is without a science degree.

boy eating outside
Image courtesy of l@mie

If you can’t pronounce a food ingredient on the label, it’s probably a pretty good bet that you shouldn’t be eating it. But do you know which ingredients you should absolutely avoid feeding your children?

Check out this list of seven food ingredients your children should never eat (and neither should you, for that matter).

1. Artificial Colors

Did you know that 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes are used in U.S. foods each year? In the European Union, foods that contain artificial food dyes have warning labels that state, “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Yet here in the U.S., they are included in everything, including food products made for children. Although nine food colors are approved for use in the U.S. by the FDA, animal studies link food dyes to a variety of health concerns, ranging from behavioral problems to allergies to cancer.

2. Artificial Sweeteners

Image courtesy of frankieleon

Many people turn to artificial sweeteners when they learn the dangers of sugar. Unfortunately, artificial sweeteners are not a better choice. Some studies have linked the intake of artificial sweeteners to weight gain. In addition, some artificial sweeteners are neurotoxic and can pass the blood-brain barrier. Others can disrupt the balance of your gut flora. If you need a sweet treat, grab a piece of organic fruit.

3. Artificial Flavors

When you see “artificial flavors” on a food label, do you have any idea what that ingredient consists of? Probably not, since manufacturing artificial flavors is a multi-billion industry and manufacturers keep those recipes top secret. While flavor manufacturers use chemicals approved by the U.S. FDA, they are not required to disclose which chemicals are in the flavors they produce.

4. Artificial Preservatives

Preservatives were introduced with good intentions — to increase the shelf life of many foods. Unfortunately, preservatives have been tied to health issues including allergies, neurological disorders, cancer, and more. Some preservatives you absolutely want to avoid include butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), butylated hydrozyttoluene (BHT), tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ), and sodium nitrites.

5. Trans Fats

0g trans fat
Image courtesy of Tom Magliery

There is no safe level of intake of trans fats. They promote inflammation and have been linked to cancer, diabetes, decreased immune function, reproduction issues, and heart disease. If you don’t know how to identify trans fats, they’ll usually be labeled as hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils on food labels. As of June 2018, manufacturers are no longer allowed to add partially hydrogenated oils to foods in the U.S., although the FDA extended compliance through January 1, 2020, “to allow an orderly transition in the marketplace.”

6. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Most people have heard that MSG is something to avoid. However, it is labeled under many different names. Familiarize yourself with these ingredients so you can avoid them because MSG can possibly trigger or worsen learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS), Parkinson’s disease, and other conditions that involve the brain.

7. High-Fructose Corn Syrup

In addition to avoiding sugar, you and your family should absolutely avoid high-fructose corn syrup. Unlike sugar, all high-fructose corn syrup must be processed by your liver (just like alcohol) and is turned directly into fat. So, if you’re consuming a lot of high-fructose corn syrup, you are really taxing your liver, which can lead to liver damage as well as obesity-related disorders.

This is in no way a comprehensive list of food ingredients you should avoid when it comes to your children (and you!), but I hope it gives you a place to start when choosing a more healthful diet.

Which ingredients do you avoid feeding your children?

Feature image courtesy of Stuart Richards

Editor’s note: Originally published on March 8, 2017, this article was updated in March 2020.

By Chrystal Johnson

Chrystal Johnson, publisher of Happy Mothering, founder of Green Moms Media and essential oil fanatic, is a mother of two sweet girls who believes in living a simple, natural lifestyle. A former corporate marketing communication manager, Chrystal spends her time researching green and eco-friendly alternatives to improve her family's life.