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Every step away from processed foods is a step towards better health

Imagine if schoolchildren were required to take an “anti-supplement” at breakfast and lunch that spiked blood sugar, promoted inflammation in the brain and body, and contained compounds that were proven to be harmful to human health in myriad ways. This anti-supplement is designed to predictably result in foggier brains, more unstable attention spans, and baseline moods. Clearly, this is the opposite of what is supportive of learning and student flourishing in the classroom, but the anti-supplement regime will continue every day regardless.

The unfortunate reality in cafeterias across the nation is that this anti-supplement takes the form of millions of daily breakfast and lunch servings of ultra-processed meals.

Ultra-processed foods are extremely common food staples in American life. Common items such as plastic wrap, boxed pizza, chicken nuggets, chips, and fruit juices are saturated with artificial chemical compounds, several of which have been proven harmful to health. Many of the preservatives and additives that are allowed in US processed food packaged items are actively banned in other countries.

I want to step in at this point to say that I have eaten a lot of processed foods in my life. I was an every-morning Pop-Tart kid! But I do wonder how much better my health and mental health would have been if I had grown up without processed foods. We now have decades of health research to definitively report that processed foods are not compatible with a healthy diet for various reasons. Sooner or later, processed foods have to be recognized for the thorns that they are, and if we and our children are to journey through life with health and vibrancy, we have to seek to take that thorn out of our feet.

Here are just a few eye-opening facts about commonly included artificial compounds in processed foods.

  • Coloring agents (Blue 1, Yellow 5, and 6) are used to color foods and are linked to neurological problems such as brain cancer, ADHD, etc. (1, 2). Artificial food color usually contains petroleum.

  • BHA and BHT, which are used in foods like gum and vegetable oil, can also increase the risk of cancer (3).

  • Abdelli and colleagues (2019) discovered that a food preservative, propionic acid (PPA), can alter how a fetus’s brain develops during pregnancy, which can contribute to neurological changes characteristic of autism (4). Store-bought breads, baked goods, processed cheese, dried fruits, and juices often contain some form of PPA as a preservative.

  • Ingredients in the American processed food supply with allowable lead, arsenic, and mercury residues are abundant. The allowed heavy metal residues are based on the individual food ingredient manufacturing processes (5).

  • Research links consumption of highly processed foods with higher levels of phthalate microplastics in the body. Microplastics can act as carriers for various micropollutants, such as toxic trace metals, pharmaceuticals, and personal care products (PPCPs), as well as persistent organic pollutants (6).


Processed, packaged foods are popular for a reason. They can be delicious, are often cheaper by weight, and are easier to store, prepare, and serve. If food companies take the health of you and your child as seriously as you do, then the pros of including processed foods in your child’s diet may outweigh the cons. But the reality is that profit is a competing interest for companies.

The U.S. government allows food companies to ethically monitor themselves, deciding which ingredients are nutritious and “safe” to use in their products. Many companies, looking out for their profit interests, opt for the cheapest flavor enhancer, color additive, preservatives, and GMO ingredients, even if these cheaper alternatives can have a negative consequence for you or your child. 

Particularly for autistic children, who have heightened difficulty metabolizing and excreting heavy metals and artificial compounds, the artificial additives and heavy metal residues in the processed food supply are important to consider.


A healthy diet is not a luxury for your child, but a necessity to feel and be their best in every aspect of his or her growth, learning, and life!


France USA

What to eat instead is a big question. What is a healthy diet? I included this stark example below of what school lunches can often look like in the United States and what a school lunch can look like in a European nation that is more highly conscious of the dangers of processed foods. Which meal would you pick to nourish the body and brain of your child on a meal-by-meal basis? I know which one I would pick!


What a healthy diet is can be a complicated question to answer, but not really. I think this comparison provides a clear and direct example of what to ideally include in your child’s diet. Preferably whole, single, or minimal natural ingredient foods, minimally processed with no artificial preservatives or additives. A piece of diet advice that has stuck with me is that one should choose to shop on the outer rows of the grocery store where whole foods are found (meats, eggs, dairy, produce) and avoid the processed food aisles entirely.


I don’t want the kids I work with on a daily basis to suffer the same poor dietary options I and many of us had growing up. I wrote this article because I want to continue to spread the word that diet-induced suffering and developmental stunting are unfortunate realities in our modern world. The orientation towards a whole-foods diet for this uniquely modern challenge can be difficult to change and navigate toward, but it is well worth the effort. This path toward more healthful eating can have immense benefits for your child’s health, feelings of wellbeing, and happiness. Your child deserves to thrive inside and out!

Will Barron, PhD -- I have over ten years of experience working as a School Psychologist in the public-school setting, conducting special education evaluations and consulting with teachers/parents on how to better support the emotional well-being of students. I earned my PhD in Autism Intervention from the University of North Texas in 2022 to increase my knowledge and skillset to better advocate for students on the autism spectrum. I also work as a research consultant with

Pure Syncore, a health and wellness company https://puresyncore.shop/. Lastly, subscribe to my

Autism Better Health Newsletter to receive weekly editions, where I share promising therapeutic autism health relevant research directly to your inbox! https://mailchi.mp/fd171db9f023/autism-better-health




1.      Rambler RM, Rinehart E, Boehmler W, Gait P, Moore J, Schlenker M, Kashyap R. A Review of the Association of Blue Food Coloring With Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder Symptoms in Children. Cureus. 2022 Sep 16;14(9)

2.      Kobylewski S, Jacobson MF. Toxicology of food dyes. Int J Occup Environ Health. 2012 Jul-Sep;18(3)

3.      Ousji O, Sleno L. Identification of In Vitro Metabolites of Synthetic Phenolic Antioxidants BHT, BHA, and TBHQ by LC-HRMS/MS. International Journal of Molecular Sciences. 2020; 21(24):9525. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijms21249525

4.      Abdelli, L., Samsan, A. & Naser, A. (2019). Propionic Acid Induces Gliosis and Neuro-inflammation through Modulation of PTEN/AKT Pathway in Autism Spectrum Disorder. Scientific Reports, 9:8824 | https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-45348-z

5.      Dufault RJ, Crider RA, Deth RC, Schnoll R, Gilbert SG, Lukiw WJ, Hitt AL. Higher rates of autism and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder in American children: Are food quality issues impacting epigenetic inheritance? World J Clin Pediatr. 2023 Mar 9;12(2):25-37.

6.      Sewwandi et al. (2023) Microplastics and plastics-associated contaminants in food and beverages; Global trends, concentrations, and human exposure. Environmental Pollution, 317(15), https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2022.120747 

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