KEEP IT SIMPLE
What to look for in processed foods, and what do I mean by keep it simple? It isn’t necessary to know every single additive, preservative, or chemical that is found in processed foods, but there are some that are worthy of knowing, or at least spotting in the ingredient list on food labels. I, without fail, read the ingredient list of everything I purchase because it’s just good sense to know what I’m putting in my body. Granted, I’ve been known to overlook a couple things here and there in certain situations (which I’m not recommending), but I still read the list. Then I know I’m making an educated decision as to whether I want to consume it. I haven’t learned and memorized every toxic chemical that’s hidden in food, but I’m familiar with some of the worst and most common. Often, I don’t even read the entire ingredient list once I’ve spotted one or more from the list below. While very small quantities may not hurt me, it ALL adds up, especially over time. We aren’t treating our bodies right if we overlook it often, most of the time, or all the time.
THE SHORT LIST OF THINGS TO AVOID
A more detailed list is below, but here is the abbreviated list of some ingredients I watch for. If a food/food-like substance contains one of the following, it lets me know that it’s processed. I know that the food/food-like substance simply isn’t necessary or nutritious, and in fact, is harmful to my body. This is one of my favorite quotes because it’s so simple, easy to remember, and almost always the case. “Every time you eat or drink, you are either feeding disease or fighting it.” – Heather Morgan
INGREDIENTS TO AVOID: high fructose corn syrup, fructose syrup, corn syrup, sucralose, aspartame, vegetable oil, soybean oil, canola oil, monosodium glutamate (MSG), food dyes, BHA, and BHT. You are familiar with most, if not all, so don’t get overwhelmed. I also try to avoid it when “sugar” (or many of the hidden names for sugar) is listed because it’s processed, it’s not necessary, and we don’t need it. However, if everything else looks up to par, it’s not the main ingredient, and I can’t find one that meets all my requirements, sugar may be one I overlook from time to time.
A couple more: Because I don’t eat meat, I don’t see nitrites and nitrates, but if I did, I would AVOID them and all processed meats (more info below). And because I so rarely consume dairy and never purchase it for my kitchen, I don’t worry about rbGH and rbST, but if I did, I would avoid them as well.
DON’T GET OVERWHELMED
Again, don’t get overwhelmed, and trust me, there is plenty of real, healthful food without having to compromise, and it’s delicious and nutritious. One last thing to note, there are more toxic ingredients that are worthy of our concern, but these are some of the worst AND most common. If it’s something you should avoid, you are very likely to find at least one of these, alongside anything that didn’t make this list. Therefore, knowing these is an excellent place to start.
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup
Other names: HFCS, fructose, natural corn syrup, maize syrup, glucose/fructose syrup, corn sugar, fruit fructose, and iso-glucose.
What it is: It’s a highly refined sweetener made from corn starch, and don’t let the “corn” fool you. It is far from being a naturally occurring substance.
Negative side effects: It has been shown to contribute to weight gain, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, insulin resistance, elevated triglycerides and LDL cholesterol.
Commonly found in: Soda, salad dressings, breads, cereals, yogurt, soups, canned vegetables, lunch meats, pizza sauce, condiments…the list goes on.
Good to know: There are a couple reasons HFCS is so widely used. First it is cheaper than sugar because of the government farm bill corn subsidies. Secondly, it was marketed as being healthier than sugar for years, so everyone jumped on the bandwagon. Don’t be mistaken, table sugar is not healthy either but is definitely a healthier option over HFCS. I always recommend sticking to the natural sweeteners: honey, pure maple, monk fruit/luo han guo, and real stevia. These come from Mother Nature.
2. Artificial Sweeteners and Synthetic Sugar Substitutes.
Other names: Sucralose, which is Splenda, is everywhere. Other names include Aspartame, Equal, Saccharin, Sweet N Low, NutraSweet. There are many more, but those are very common.
What it is: A chemical that adds sweetness to food with few or zero calories.
Negative side effects: Many artificial sweeteners are believed to be carcinogenic and can contribute to headaches and digestive issues. It also messes with your metabolism and insulin because they trick the brain into forgetting that sweetness means extra calories, which can cause people to eat more sweet foods over time. Also, when you eat something that’s artificially sweetened, your body releases insulin the way it would if you ate sugar, which messes with your body’s insulin response over time. This can eventually lead to type 2 diabetes.
Commonly found in: It’s found in thousands of products, especially diet, sugar-free, and low-calorie sodas, sweet drinks, sports drinks, and foods. It can even be hidden in supplements, baked goods, puddings, jams and jellies, dairy products, gum, yogurts, etc. Read labels and eat real food. If it has the word(s) “diet”, “sugar-free”, “low-calorie”, and even “low-carb” it’s probably being replaced with something artificial. It’s definitely worth the extra look.
Good to know: There are natural sweeteners that are safe to use, but keep in mind that sugar is sugar regardless. However, natural sweeteners do have their benefits and are ALWAYS better than artificial sweeteners, but just like everything else we put in our bodies, they should be consumed in moderation. Some natural sweeteners include, honey, pure maple syrup, monk fruit/luo han guo, and stevia. Don’t be fooled by imitation stevia, which is everywhere. Real stevia comes from Mother Nature, is plant based, and safer.
3. Trans Fat or Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
Other names: shortening or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, soybean oil, corn oil, and canola oil. There are more, but those are very common.
What it is: Trans fats or Hydrogenated oils are vegetable oils whose chemical structure has been altered (addition of hydrogen atoms) to prevent rancidity in foods, which extends shelf life and saves money for food manufactures.
Negative side effects: Trans fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lower your HDL (good) cholesterol, as well as contribute to inflammation, heart disease, obesity, strokes, and increase your risk of metabolic syndromes. Don’t underestimate the importance of using good oil!
Commonly found in: Deep fried foods, margarine, chips, crackers, baked goods, fast food, cooking oils, and SO MUCH MORE. Be familiar with these, and it’s very easy to navigate real food vs processed.
Good to know: The FDA guidelines allow the manufacturer to list “zero grams trans fat” on the nutrition label if the amount is less than .5 grams per serving. Because you will not always see “trans fat” or “hydrogenated vegetable oil” on the label, it so important to read the ingredient list and get familiar with the oils listed above.
4. Artificial Food Coloring / Food Dyes
Other names: Blue 1 and 2, green 3, red 3, red 40, and yellow 5, yellow 6, – E110, yellow tartrazine – E102
What it is: They are used to make foods look bright and colorful.
Negative side effects: Artificial food coloring has been linked to various cancers, chromosomal damage, and problems with children including allergies, hyperactivity, learning impairment, irritability, and aggressiveness. That seems like a pretty big motivator to me!
Commonly found in: Fruit juices, salad dressings, cocktail mixes, pie mixes, ice cream, candy, bakery products, American cheese, mac & cheese, soda, lemonade, kids’ medication, energy bars, cereal, fast food, frosting, puddings, jams, meat, fish, and more!
Good to know. Read your labels; if they have to use food coloring to make the edible-food like substance look appealing, we should probably pass on it. Just because something has color doesn’t mean it’s artificial. There are natural colorants that are available for food manufactures, such as beets and beet root extract.
5. MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)
Other names: Monosodium glutamate, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein, Glutamate, Glutamic Acid, Sodium Caseinate, Calcium Caseinate. Yeast extract has replaced MSG as a flavor enhancer in many processed foods, and it contains the same concentrated free glutamic acid as MSG.
What it is: MSG is an additive used to enhance a flavor in processed foods. It is used to make foods more “addicting” so we will keep buying and eating them.
Negative side effects: Regular consumption of MSG has been shown to stimulate the appetite and contribute to weight gain and obesity. It causes negative reactions in some people, such as muscle tightness, fatigue, and headaches. Research shows an association with high blood pressure, and it has been linked to asthma attacks.
Commonly found in: While we’re all aware that MSG is associated with Chinese food, know that it is found in many processed foods, such as potato chips, seasonings, lunch meat, fast food, sports drinks, canned soups, processed meats, salad dressings, crackers, salty snacks, and convenience meals. Staying away from Chinese food won’t save you from MSG consumption.
Good to know: It is derived from glutamic acid, which is found in many types of foods. However, MSG contains an isolated and highly concentrated form that is processed very differently in the body. Whether you think MSG is safe or not, it is primarily found in unhealthy, highly processed foods with little nutrients, so the nutritional value is a moot point.
6. Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate
What it is: These two chemicals are used to preserve meat and make it look more appealing by giving it a nice, vibrant color.
Negative side effects: When added to meat, which is then cooked, nitrates convert to nitrosamines, which are associated with an increased risk of certain cancers. This conversion usually happens at high temperatures, and the presence of amino acids is necessary as well for the conversion to occur (which is why it’s problematic when nitrates are in meat).
Commonly found in: Cured meats, bacon, ham, salami, corned beef, hot dogs, canned meat, dried fish, jerky, lunch meat, and other processed meats.
Good to know: In a 2007 analysis, the World Cancer Research Fund guidelines for healthy eating included “avoid processed meat” because of an association with increased risk of colorectal cancer development. In addition, according to the American Cancer Society, the most widely used system for classifying carcinogens comes from the Internal Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC). The IARC who is also part of the World Health Organization (WHO) places the “consumption of processed meat” in Group 1, which means IT IS carcinogenic to humans (not probably or possibly – IT IS carcinogenic to humans)! To put it more in prospective, here are a few other things that are in Group 1: tobacco smoke, ultraviolet-emitting tanning devices, formaldehyde, asbestos, arsenic, plutonium, and estrogen postmenopausal therapy…those are only a few. If you try to avoid any of those, why would you not want to avoid processed meat?
7. BHA & BHT (Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydrozyttoluene (BHT))
What it is: These are two preservatives used to extend shelf life and keep foods from becoming rancid.
Negative side effects: Both of these preservatives have been deemed potentially carcinogenic. They can also mess with your hormones. As always, eat more real food (or minimally processed) that contain few to no additives. They are safe and more nutritious.
Commonly found in: Cereals, most commercial breads, cookies, vegetable oil, chips, sausage, hot dogs, gum, chips, candy, Jell-O, and even cosmetics.
Other names: Bromic acid, potassium salt, bromated flour
What it is: This is a food additive used to increase the volume in some white flour, breads, and rolls.
Negative side effects: Has the potential to disrupt the genetic material within cells. Upon entering the body, they can be transformed into highly reactive molecules that can damage DNA and may play a role in the development of cancer. It is also an endocrine disruptor.
Commonly found in: Most commercial breads, white flour, and rolls.
Good to know: the IARC determined that potassium bromate is a possible human carcinogen. It isn’t allowed for use or is banned as a food additive in many countries, including the UK, Canada, Brazil, and the European Union. The state of California requires food with Potassium Bromate to carry a warning label.
9. rbGH and rbST (Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH), Recombinant bovine somatotropin (rBST).
What it is: These are growth hormones designed to boost milk production in dairy cows.
Negative side effects: Milk from cows given these hormones have high levels of insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1). High levels of this have been linked to breast, prostate, and colon cancers; breast and prostate cancer are the two most diagnosed cancers.
Commonly found in: Many dairy products that aren’t specifically labeled “No rgBH or rbST.”
Good to know: Since these growth hormones are not required to be labeled, most consumers have no idea they are ingesting a growth hormone. Giving cows rbGH has been shown to increase mastitis, which then requires the use of antibiotics. Guess who ends up consuming some of the antibiotics? Yep, the people consuming milk, cheese, and yogurt. Because of serious consumer concern, some dairy companies have gone rbGH-free. There are still others concerns with dairy, but that’s the gist for this one.
10. Artificial Flavors
What it is: Chemical compounds used to flavor foods and make them more addicting.
Negative side effects: Artificial flavors aren’t necessarily harmful, but they are often an indicator that the food is highly processed and likely includes one of the other ingredients on this list! Real food shouldn’t require artificial flavoring to taste good. It’s simply not necessary, and if it is, I would avoid it anyway. I don’t want to eat something that has to be disguised.
Commonly found in: Many processed foods and drinks, so as always, read the label.
Good to know: When “natural flavors” is listed, we don’t really know the whole picture. Using “natural flavors” on a package lets us know that the product doesn’t contain any added colors, artificial flavors, or synthetic substances. In my strong opinion, “natural flavors” is NOT a good reason to avoid a food or drink. It is likely the flavors are from spices, fruits, vegetables, herbs, roots, or similar plant material. If I feel confident with the brand and other ingredients, this one won’t deter me. On the other hand, artificial means artificial, so that’s always a red flag for me.