The very best way to sidestep artificial ingredients is to eat whole foods as much as possible. But, chances are, even if you’re already eating a (mostly) whole foods diet, some processed foods are sneaking their way in. And in that case, reading labels is invaluable. Food companies use more than 3,000 food additives in their packaged products, including preservatives, flavorings and colors–some being worse than others.
To help you understand the what’s what of this somewhat murky landscape, our coaches share the top 10 food ingredients to avoid and why:
Artificial sweeteners are synthetic sugar substitutes, but may be derived from naturally occurring substances, including herbs or sugar itself. They are also know as “intense sweeteners” because they are many times sweeter than regular sugar.
Artificial sweeteners examples:
Trans fat, or trans-fatty acids, is a type of unsaturated fat that made from vegetable fats (usually under the name partially hydrogenated vegetable oil) for use in things like margarine, snack foods (crackers, chips, etc.) and any fried and fast foods.
Trans fat is very pro-inflammatory, which is a known culprit in most modern-day chronic diseases, including diabetes, heart disease and cancer. The link between trans fats and these diseases is strong, it’s best to avoid them completely. Check ingredients labels of packaged foods carefully: if the ingredients list includes “hydrogenated” or “partially hydrogenated” oil, the product contains trans fat. Nutrition labeling rules allow for a product to say it has zero grams of trans fat if the amount per serving is .5 grams or less. So even if the label says “zero” trans fat per serving, if there are multiple servings in a package and you eat the whole package, you’ll be consuming a few grams of trans fat. Focus on eating healthy fats instead, including avocados, avocado oil, nuts, nut butters, seeds, olives and olive oil.
Artificial food colors are chemical dyes used to color food and drinks. They cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children (and reduction of IQ), and some have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. They’re found in many cereals, cakes, candy, bakery products, drinks, vitamins and pharmaceuticals.
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are common preservatives that keeps foods from changing color, flavor or becoming rancid. They’re found in many breakfast cereals (including most Kellogg’s varieties), as well as snack foods, enriched rice, lard and shortening, chewing gum, pies, cakes, jello and processed meats.
BHA and BHT affect the neurological system of the brain, alter behavior and have been linked to cancer.
When food is processed, it loses its natural flavor, and when it sits on a store shelf for weeks, its natural chemicals begin to deteriorate, reducing its shelf life. Artificial flavors are additives designed to mimic the taste of natural ingredients. They are a cheap way for manufacturers to make something taste like cherries, for example, without actually using any real cherries. Artificial flavors can be tricky because food companies aren’t required to be more specific than the phrase “artificial flavors.” So, if you see it listed on a package, you won’t know if it’s one additive or a whole variety of them. For this reason, in an ideal world, it’s best to skip them altogether. Artificial flavors can be found in many drinks (including fruit juice “blends”), flavored yogurt, salad dressings, candy, gum, baked goods snack foods and more.
An artificial flavor called diacetyl, which is used to flavor microwave popcorn and is also used in potato and corn chips and crackers, has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease. Other possible symptoms include nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and seizures. Without labeling the specific ingredients in artificial flavors, identifying the root cause of your symptom(s) can be nearly impossible.
Hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are all harmful “excitotoxins.” They are put in foods to fool the tongue into thinking the food tastes better. Look out for anything that’s “hydrolyzed” and any ingredient that contains the word “protein” (whey protein isolate, textured protein, etc.)
MSG is linked to skin rashes, asthma attacks, depression, mood swings and more. It affects the neurological pathways of the brain and disengages the “I’m full” function, which can lead to weight gain.
Sodium nitrate (or sodium nitrite) is used as a preservative, coloring and flavoring in bacon, ham, hot dogs, lunch meats, corned beef, smoked fish and other processed meats. (It makes meats appear red.)
This ingredient is highly carcinogenic once it enters the human digestive system. It forms a variety of nitrosamine compounds that damage the liver and pancreas.
Sulfur additives are toxic and are prohibited on raw fruits and vegetables in the United States. It’s still found in beer, soft drinks, dried fruit, juices, cordials, wine, vinegar and processed potato products.
Sulfur dioxide can cause bronchial problems, particularly in those prone to asthma, hypotension (low blood pressure), flushing, tingling sensations and other allergic reactions. It also destroys vitamins B1 and E. It is not recommended for consumption by children.
Potassium Bromate is an additive used to increase volume in some bread products.
It’s known to cause cancer in animals and is banned in Europe, China, Canada and Brazil. But you’ll still find it in some U.S.-made breads and bakery products, possibly listed as bromated flour.
BVO is a food additive sometimes used to keep citrus flavoring from separating in some sodas and sports drinks.
BVO builds up in fatty tissue and has been shown to cause heart damage in animals. It’s banned in Europe, India and Japan. It can still be found in the United States in some Gatorade products, Mountain Dew and other beverages containing citrus flavorings.
Not sure which foods have artificial ingredients, or need some help planning meals and recipes without artificial ingredients? Take our short quiz and get matched with your health coach team today.