Young children grow and develop quickly. Because of the brain and body growth and changes that happen during childhood, children have a higher risk of developing side effects from certain foods or food ingredients.
Here is a list of common food safety issues and steps you can take to lower the risk.
Steps You Can Take
Mercury is a metal that gets into the environment from farming and industry wastes. Fish absorb mercury, and our bodies can absorb mercury when we eat fish. Too much mercury affects the brain and nerves. Mercury affects children more than adults because their brains and bodies are still growing.
Fish is a healthy food. Health Canada recommends we eat at least two servings of fish each week. Fish has many nutrients, such as protein needed for muscles and omega-3 fats needed for brain and eye development.
By limiting fish with higher mercury levels, your child can still get the health benefits of fish without the risk. Higher mercury fish include:
- fresh and frozen tuna;
- orange roughy; and
Limit higher mercury fish to the following amounts:
- 1 to 4 years old: 75 grams per month (1 serving from Canada's Food Guide)
- 5 to 11 years old: 125 grams per month (1 ½ servings from Canada's Food Guide)
Canned albacore (white) tuna is higher in mercury than canned light tuna. Use these guidelines to limit the amount of canned albacore tuna eaten:
- 1 to 4 years old: 75 grams per week (1 serving from Canada's Food Guide)
- 5 to 11 years old: 150 grams per week (2 servings from Canada's Food Guide)
Sugar substitutes are added to foods and beverages to make them taste sweeter without adding calories. They are found in many products including yogurt, pudding, cookies, breakfast cereals, fruit spreads, syrups, desserts, gum, soft drinks, flavoured milks, and other beverages.
Foods and beverages with sugar substitutes can sometimes replace healthier food choices. Sugar substitutes are not recommended for children under two years of age.
The following sugar substitutes are safe in limited amounts for children over two years of age:
- acesulfame potassium;
- sugar alcohols (e.g., sorbitol, maltitol, mannitol, xylitol, erythritol);
- steviol glycosides; and
If your child regularly has foods or beverages with sugar substitutes, talk with your dietitian or other health care provider about whether this amount is safe for your child. Some sugar substitutes can cause side effects such as diarrhea, gas and bloating.
Cyclamate and saccharin are sugar substitutes used in table top sweeteners. They are not safe for all children. Read the label for safety information or speak to a pharmacist to see if these products are safe for your child.
Caffeine is a stimulant. It increases heart rate and alertness making it hard for children to sleep and focus their attention. Caffeine can also cause stomach aches and headaches.
Many types of pop, coffee, tea, chocolate and foods made with chocolate, and energy drinks contain caffeine (see below).
Health Canada has set safe levels of caffeine for children. The safe levels are:
- 4 to 6 years: 45 mg/day
- 7 to 9 years: 62.5 mg/day
- 10 to 12 years: 85 mg/day
- 13 years and older: 2.5 mg per kg body weight per day.
- For example, 125 mg/day is the upper limit for caffeine if a teen weighs 50 kg (110 lbs) (50kg x 2.5mg/kg = 125mg).
For more information on caffeine and the amounts found in foods and beverages, see Additional Resources.
Energy drinks are beverages marketed to increase energy and alertness. They are found near other beverages at the store, and may be confused with sports drinks or pop.
Energy drinks usually have more caffeine than is recommended for children up to 18 years old. Energy drinks often have high amounts of sugar or artificial sweeteners. Other ingredients, such as B vitamins, the amino acid taurine, and herbal stimulants like guarana, are common.
Health Canada recommends that all children avoid energy drinks.
Sodium (salt) is used to improve the taste of food and acts as a preservative. Most children eat too much sodium. Eating too much sodium in childhood may increase the risk of high blood pressure and heart disease as an adult. To reduce the sodium in your child's diet:
- Make meals using fresh foods without added salt.
- Look for lower sodium options when choosing packaged foods. Check the Nutrition Facts Table on the label. Compare products and choose foods with the lowest amount of sodium.
- Reduce salt added to cooking and used at the table.
Vitamin A is used for vision and in the immune system. It's also needed for healthy skin and bones. If someone has too much vitamin A, it can cause muscle and bone pain, and skin and liver problems.
Many children's multivitamins have high amounts of vitamin A. If you offer your child a multivitamin, check the nutrition label. Pick a multivitamin that is the lowest in vitamin A.
The recommended daily intake of vitamin A for children is:
- 1 to 3 year olds: 300 Retinol Equivalents (RE or RAE)
- 4 to 6 year olds: 400 RE
- 9 to 13 year olds: 600 RE
- 14 to 18 year old males: 900 RE
- 14 to 18 year old females: 700 RE
If you are concerned your child may be getting too much vitamin A, talk to a registered dietitian.
Flax Seed and Flax Oil
Flax seed has natural compounds called lignans that, if taken in large amounts, could affect hormones. However, flax seed is safe for children if eaten in the amounts commonly found in foods.
Flax oil does not have lignans. It is also safe for children if eaten in the amounts commonly found in foods.
Risk of Choking
Children under 4 years of age are at high risk for choking because they are still learning how to chew and swallow their food.
Foods most likely to cause choking include:
- raw vegetables
- nuts and seeds
- whole wieners
- hard candy, cough drops and gum
- raisins and other dried fruit
- whole grapes
- fish with bones
- seed and nut butters spread thickly or served on a spoon
When you give new textures to your child:
- Cut round items like grapes and wieners in quarter-sections, length-wise.
- Thinly spread nut and seed butters over bread or crackers
- Finely grate raw vegetables
- Always supervise children when they are eating.
- Make sure children don't put too much food into their mouth at one time.
Get first aid training to know what to do if a child is choking.
- HealthLinkBC File #68m Healthy Eating: Guidelines for Eating Fish with Higher Mercury Levels
- HealthLinkBC File #109 Energy Drinks
Dietitian Services Fact Sheets available by mail (call 8-1-1) or online.
- Food Safety in Children Older than 1 Year - Preventing Foodborne Illness
- Healthy Eating Guidelines for Lower Sodium (Salt) Eating
- Lower Sodium (Salt) Food Choices
Last updated: September 2013