Going Additive Free: Our Whole Foods Mission

Levy at Lewis Waite Farm One of the things I am happiest about as a parent is that all three of my kids are great sleepers. They never fight bedtime and are usually all fast asleep before 8pm, it is amazing. With just one exception- Levy's night terrors. A night terrors is a sleep disruption that occurs during deep non-REM sleep, and unlike nightmares (which occur during REM sleep), a night terror is not technically a dream, but more like a sudden reaction of fear that happens during the transition from one sleep phase to another. Levy will fall asleep totally fine, but wake up a few hours later screaming and crying, and the most frustrating part of night terrors is that there is nothing you can do to console them, Levy appears "out of it" and is unable to have a conversation or sometimes even speak at all. Sometimes it is quick and she falls back asleep, sometimes it takes a lot longer.

The silver lining is that she almost always has no recollection of the incident the next day, but it can obviously be disruptive for the whole house when she is loud enough to wake all of us up. There's not a whole lot to do about night terrors either, we keep her on a regular routine with bedtime and make sure she is not overtired or stressed before bed, and that seems to help. One of the things that I noticed was monitoring what she was eating before bed. If we happened to have something particularly sweet and full of sugar (which is even more of a possibility now that I'm pregnant) she was more likely to have a night terror incident.

A study cited in the journal Pediatrics reported that more than 50 percent of hyperactive children show fewer behavior problems and had less trouble sleeping when put on a restricted diet free of all artificial and chemical food additives, chocolate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), preservatives, and caffeine. Large quantities of sweets and refined foods can also lead to hyperactivity. Although Levy doesn't have any issues with hyperactivity, it is worth a shot to see if cutting out these additives will help her have more peaceful and restful sleep.

We all know that foods with the highest amount of additives include processed foods, packaged foods, candy, soda and “junk” foods, but those are just the most obvious offenders. And for the most part, we avoid those types of foods. No soda, very little fast food (once in a while), and candy only occasionally. But it still sneaks in. Plus, you'll find food additives even in foods that you thought were healthier, much like the "no sugar added" ice cream I picked up one day. It contained Acesulfame Potassium (Acesulfame-K), a calorie-free artificial sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar that is often used with other artificial sweeteners to mask a bitter aftertaste. Although the FDA has approved it for use in most foods, many health and industry insiders claim that the decision was based on flawed tests and animal studies have linked the chemical to lung and breast tumors and thyroid problems. Sounds good, right? So the food I thought was a better alternative turns out to be worse.

When I first started doing research into how to avoid food additives the information was almost overwhelming, and it can seem nearly impossible. But there are some tips on how to get started, and above all, you just have to keep vigilant. Learn what additives you should be avoiding and check those food labels. You can also follow these tips to get started:

Keep a family food diary for a week: Note everything that is eaten – including at school. At the end of the week, you should have a good idea of your family’s exposure to food additives.

Eat whole foods: Eating a balanced diet of fresh produce and whole grains will go a long way towards keeping additives and preservatives out of your child’s system. Whole foods are much healthier than processed and packaged. If you choose processed foods, look for the organic options which usually have little or no added synthetic colors or preservatives.

Be label smart: Scan labels of anything you buy for some of these worst offenders:

  • Food Dyes and Artificial Colors: Recent studies have linked food coloring to hyperactivity in kids is causing some experts to call on the FDA to ban foods containing them — or at least require a warning label. Click here to read more about these studies and how to avoid food dyes, the use of which has gone up fivefold in the past 50 years.
  • Chemical Preservatives: Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), Sodium Nitrate, Sodium Benzoate
  • Artificial Sweeteners: Aspartame, Acesulfame-K, Saccharin
  • Added Sugar: High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), Corn Syrup, Dextrose, etc.
  • Added Salt: Look at the sodium content and choose foods with the lowest amounts.

Additionally, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, some of following additives have been associated with negative health impacts:

    • Propyl Gallate
    • Sulfites (Sulfur Dioxide, Sodium Sulfite, Sodium And Potassium Bisulfite, Sodium and Potassium Metabisulfite)
    • Potassium Bromate
    • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) (keep in mind that MSG can also be found under these names as well)
    • Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
    • Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
    • Potassium Bromate
    • Olestra (Olean)
    • Heptylparaben
    • Sodium Nitrite

I've also been visiting 100 Days of Real Food a lot lately, written by a mom who decided to take a more whole food approach to feeding her family. She has some really helpful tips on how to make healthier food choices and can make the entire process sound a much more doable (including recipes and how tos). Some of her great tips include:

  • Try to buy items that contain 5 items or less, if a product contains more than 5 ingredients and includes a lot of unfamiliar, unpronounceable items you may want to reconsider before buying.
  • According to Michael Pollan: "Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself.” If you had to peel, chop and deep fry potatoes every time you wanted French fries you probably wouldn't eat them very often. Only eating “junk food” such as cakes, sweets, and fried foods as often as you are willing to make them yourself will automatically ensure the frequency is appropriate.

I have to say, it isn't always easy to make more whole food choices, and I'm not going to say that I'm 100% going to stick to it all of the time, but I am going to make a more concentrated effort to stay close to these guidelines and see where it takes us health wise. I also think it helps make better choices when we focus on sharing our meals together as a family. How about you? Do you make an effort to stay additive free and stock up on whole foods? Share some tips and recipes to help build a database of healthy family recipes. Need more ideas on additive free lunches? Click here for what I'm packing lately.