What foods can be harmful to kids?

My two grandsons eat foods that I believe are dangerous to young children. They include popcorn, peanuts, hard candies, sugar coated cereals and several artificially sweetened products. What foods should parents avoid feeding young children?

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Sue Gilbert

Sue Gilbert works as a consulting nutritionist. For many years she worked with Earth's Best Organic Baby Food, integrating nutrition and... Read more

Your question incorporates two different safety categories. One is those foods that pose an immediate type of danger, such as a choking hazard from popcorn, or a dangerous allergic reaction. The other is those foods that pose long term health hazards that arise from poor nutritional choices.

There are some foods that can pose an immediate danger to children for any number of reasons:

  • Your child may not yet have fully developed mature chewing and swallowing skills.
  • Your child may lack the necessary teeth for chewing.
  • Your child may be highly allergic to a specific food.
  • The food might contain dangerous organisms.

Many foods pose a choking hazard. These foods should be avoided because a child still has immature chewing and swallowing skills. Any food that is hard and round and can get stuck in a small airway and should be avoided. These foods include such things as whole grapes, raw carrots, raisins, apples, hot dogs, popcorn, hard candies, nuts and thick foods, such as peanut butter or some baby cereals. Hard foods such as carrots and apples can be served if they are soft cooked or grated if raw. Thinning down thick foods can help, such as adding some milk to cereal.

When children are young, regardless of their skills, they should never be left alone when eating because even safe foods can become choking hazards. Children should never be allowed to run or play while eating in order to avoid choking. Sitting down and being mindful of their eating will help to avoid such accidents.

Some foods are apt to cause an allergic reaction in young children. By waiting until a baby is older, you have given their immune system a chance to develop to a point where the risk of an allergic reaction is minimized. For some children however, an allergy can last a lifetime and will occur regardless of how long you wait to introduce the food culprit.

The foods below are the ones most apt to cause an allergic reaction:

  • Meat, egg yolk and soy products: Eight months
  • Cheese, yogurt, milk, legumes: Nine months
  • Egg whites, fish, tomatoes, citrus fruits, strawberries: One year
  • Chocolate, seafood, honey, peanuts and all peanut products, including peanut butter, should be delayed for as long as possible due to extreme allergic reactions from some children.

Wait until the stated age before introducing them to your child. If you have a family history of food allergies be particularly careful when introducing these foods and be conservative when choosing an age at which to do so: If you should discover a sensitivity in a child younger than 12 months, wait several more months and then try introducing the food again.

Foods that result in severe reactions should only be reintroduced under the advice and guidance of the child's doctor. There are some allergies that are never outgrown and the only way to avoid the danger is to avoid the food. Peanuts and seafood are allergies that cause the most severe reactions. Extra caution should be used in introducing these foods. Waiting until the child is older, again, especially if family history indicates a potential danger, is the smartest way to avoid an allergic reaction.

Honey is dangerous for children under the age of one because of the danger of botulism poisoning. Before the age of twelve months, a child's intestinal track is not mature enough to inhibit the growth of Clostridium botulinum, which is often found in honey. No honey, in any form, should be given to babies younger than one.

High nitrate foods and water should be avoided. Nitrates in foods can turn to nitrites under inappropriate storage and handling conditions. Beets, carrots, spinach, collard greens, turnips and squash should not be home prepared and served to baby. Nitrites can compete with oxygen in the blood, leading to a condition called methemoglobinemia. This condition can be as serious as to cause asphyxiation in babies. Commercially prepared baby foods do not pose the problem because the produce is purchased from low- nitrate areas and the food is processed into baby food so quickly that the nitrate does not have time to convert to the dangerous nitrite. If you live in a rural area where high nitrogen fertilizers are used, you may wish to use bottled water for the first eight to ten months of your baby's life.

Long term danger: Foods that cause immediate danger are usually easier to eliminate from a child's diet because the consequences are quick and visible. Other foods can cause just as serious a hazard, but their consequences build over time, so that the danger in them is harder to identify and avoid. These foods are the ones that are poor nutritional choices that can lead to disease or obesity, perhaps shortening the life of your child, or negatively impacting the quality of their life. These foods included some that you mentioned your grandchildren are eating; sugar coated cereals and artificially sweetened foods. I do not believe that any food should be entirely eliminated strictly because it has no nutritional value. The treats of Halloween and the occasional birthday cupcake, or cotton candy at the fair all add to the fun and flavor of life.

Ideally, on a regular basis, the foods kids are served should be only of the highest nutritional quality. This would mean whole foods, minimally processed, with little or no additives including plenty of whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean meats, fish and poultry and low fat dairy products.

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