Ok, so this is a long one about food additives! But stick with me. The take away from this post is that you have to read labels and be aware of what you're consuming. Know what to look for and avoid on food labels.
Reading labels is one of the things that jump-started my interest, education, and career in nutrition. After our daughter had a reaction to Red-40 food dye we immediately removed all food dyes from our diet. At that point, I became increasingly aware of the amount of chemicals put in to our food and what additives we should avoid.
Packaged and processed foods are convenient, portable, and they stay fresh for a long time (thanks to all those preservatives). The additives put into processed foods to make them look and taste better include unhealthy amounts of salt, fat and sugar – and those are the ones you can pronounce. These additives, however, have a price that may include side effects, food allergies, increased waistlines, decreased absorption of minerals and vitamins, cancer and more.
Below is a list of the 10 most pervasive and detrimental food additives and substances you can eat, in no particular order:
1. Refined Sugar
People in the US consume 150 to 175 pounds of sugar per year. In other words, people are consuming half a cup of sugar a day and most aren’t even aware of it. Due to its insidious nature and the fact that it can be found in virtually all processed foods, unless they say “sugar-free,” we subsist on sugar. High consumption of sugar and the corresponding elevated insulin levels can cause weight gain, bloating, fatigue, arthritis, migraines, lowered immune function, obesity, cavities and cardiovascular disease. It can also disrupt absorption of nutrients, possibly leading to osteoporosis, depression, PMS symptoms and stress. (Usually reaching for the “sugar-free” product isn’t the answer though. Read more on that soon…)
Notes: The biggest one to watch out for on labels is high fructose corn syrup. Instead, look for products that are naturally sweetened with honey or maple syrup. Regardless of the source, sugar should still be consumed in moderation. A general rule of thumb when reading labels is that every 4 grams of sugar equals 1 teaspoon. Watch out for store bought yogurt and granola bars as they can be very high in sugar. Instead, buy plain Greek yogurt, sweeten with a touch of local honey, and top with fresh fruit. Granola bars are fun to make at home because you can switch out the add-ins to create different combinations.
2. Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners are a combination of chemicals that exist to make our foods sweeter without the calories of sugar. Most artificial sweeteners have side effects, and their chemical breakdown in the body can be toxic. In addition, in combination with other food additives like artificial colors, artificial sweeteners can have a much more potent effect on nerve cells. Artificial sweeteners link to over 90 side effects.
Notes: Artificial sweeteners are most commonly found in diet and sugar-free foods. Avoid the following: aspartame, sucralose, and saccharin among others. These artificial sweeteners are also used in Equal, NutraSweet, and Sweet’n Low. I once had a client who was experiencing daily headaches and blurry vision. Through eliminations we figured out it was the aspartame filled Crystal Light causing the issues. Once the culprit was removed the symptoms disappeared as well. Stevia is a possible alternative to artificial sweeteners. I would recommend using it sparingly and the less processed the better.
3. Artificial Colors
Artificial colors are synthetic chemicals that do not occur in nature. Most are derived from coal tar and can contain up to 10 parts per million of lead and arsenic and still be generally recognized as safe by the FDA. Artificial colors can cause allergic reactions as well as hyperactivity and ADD in children, and may contribute to visual and learning disorders or cause nerve damage.
Notes: As I mentioned above, artificial colors were the game changer for us! I witnessed the hyperactivity and behavior change first hand. Artificial colors are easily avoided by reading labels – watch out for a color followed by a number. I.E. Red #40, Yellow #6, Blue #1, etc. A 2007 study sponsored by the British government concluded that food additives, including food dyes, have negative impacts on the health of children. Consequently, it’s hard to find synthetic dyes and additives in their food products. In addition, many American companies have reformulated their products for sale there but not here in the U.S. (think Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, McDonald’s, and other big names).
4. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
MSG is an excitotoxin used to bring out the flavor in foods. Excitotoxins are toxins that bind to certain receptors (e.g., certain glutamate receptors). According to Dr. Russell Blaylock, an author and neurosurgeon, excitotoxins can cause sensitive neurons to die. Many people experience a host of other side effects like headaches, itchy skin, dizziness and respiratory, digestive, circulatory and coronary concerns.
Notes: MSG is a tough one because it’s not listed on the label under the same name. There are more than 40 different ingredients that contain the chemical in monosodium glutamate (processed free glutamic acid) which can cause side effects in some individuals. A few of the ingredients you should watch out for on labels are glutamate, yeast extract, whey protein, soy protein, barley malt, maltodextrin, and natural flavor among others. You can find a detailed list here. My general rule of thumb when reading labels is that if I can’t find it in my kitchen then we probably don’t need to consume it.
5. BHA and BHT
BHA and BHT block the process of oil rancidity. These additives seem to affect sleep and appetite, and have been associated with liver and kidney damage, hair loss, behavioral problems, cancer, fetal abnormalities and growth retardation.
Notes: BHA/BHT can be found in foods such as chips, vegetable oil, sausages, cereal, cookies, beer, microwaveable meals, cake mixes, and more. Some examples of these type of foods without BHA/BHT: Kettle Brand potato chips, Simple Truth Organic Corn Flakes cereal, or Arrowhead Mills Cake Mix.
6. Sodium Nitrate and Nitrite
Sodium nitrate and nitrite are preservatives that are added to processed meat products. These compounds transform into cancer-causing agents called nirosamines in the stomach. Noticeable side effects include headaches, nausea, vomiting and dizziness.
Notes: These preservatives are most commonly found in hot dogs, lunch meat, bacon, ham, smoked fish, salami and beef jerky. Check the label on such products. Most will say nitrate or nitrite free on the front of the package if they don’t include them.
Caffeine is an addictive stimulant found in soft drinks, gum, diet pills and pain relievers; it naturally occurs in coffee, cocoa and tea. Caffeine causes calcium to be excreted from the bones, which can lead to osteoporosis and increase infertility.
Notes: Natural forms of caffeine are acceptable in moderation. If your one cup of coffee makes you feel alive in the morning or a cup of tea is an afternoon treat then by all means feel free to enjoy it. The takeaway here is moderation and to be cautious about your caffeine intake – especially large amounts found in soft drinks and energy drinks.
8. Olestra (Olean)
Olestra is a calorie-free fat substitute used as an ingredient in snacks and chips. Olestra inhibits the absorption of some vitamins and other nutrients. It can also cause diarrhea and anal leakage.
Notes: Although not as popular as it was when it first came out, you can still find this additive in Fat Free Pringles. Many chip brands pulled the fat free versions containing Olestra. (I mean, who wants to buy a product that says it can cause 'anal leakage'? Yuck!) I think that speaks volumes as to why we shouldn’t be consuming it.
9. Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)
Brominated vegetable oil is used to keep flavor oils in soft drinks in suspension. When consumed, it is stored in fat and over time can accumulate. This additive can lead to reproductive interference and birth defects. It has been banned in 100 countries.
Notes: Watch for BVO in drinks such as Mountain Dew, Squirt, Fresca, Sunkist Peach, and Fanta Orange. Powerade and Gatorade both included BVO in some flavors until the controversial ingredient was brought to light a couple of years ago and they announced they were removing it from their products. Your best bet is to check the labels. Or, steer clear of sugary, packaged drinks all together. Stick with a smoothie, fresh juice, water with lemon, or fruit infused water. We love to add the core from a freshly cut pineapple to a pitcher of water. Great flavor!
10. Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil is made by reacting vegetable oil with hydrogen. When this occurs, the level of polyunsaturated oils (good fat) is reduced and trans fats are created. They are associated with heart disease, breast and colon cancer, atherosclerosis and elevated cholesterol.
Notes: Fast food restaurants are big users of partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. French fries and fried chicken are among the fast foods that most commonly contain this additive. Look for it in margarine, chips and crackers as well. Go for real butter with ingredients you can pronounce, pretzels, or Kettle brand chips instead.
Pesticides & GMOs
In addition to these 10 additives, you should also be aware of pesticides and GMOs. Every year more than two billion pounds of pesticides are added to our food supply. That’s about 10 pounds per person per year. Many of the pesticides used throughout the world are carcinogenic. Pesticide accumulation also undermines our ability to resist infectious organisms, may impair fertility and contributes to miscarriages and birth defects. Choose organics to best avoid pesticides. At the very least, be aware of the “Dirty Dozen” and “Clean 15” lists for produce.
GMOs are plants or animals that have had their DNA modified. In the US, the majority of the corn, soybean, cotton and canola crops are now genetically modified, and one or more of these can be found in nearly every processed food. GMOs have not been proven to be safe and some studies show GMO’s may decrease immunity to diseases in plants as well as humans, may cause resistance to antibiotics and may have a negative impact on genetic function. Plants that are genetically modified to be resistant to disease, pesticides and insecticides could diminish the need to use these strong chemicals, or adversely, may build up a resistance and therefore require even larger amounts of chemicals than before. It is still too soon to tell: there is no long-term supporting evidence at this time.
I hope you now understand why reading food labels is so important to our health and that of our children’s health. Although many additives and foods may be ‘generally recognized as safe’ that doesn’t mean that we are free from harm, especially with long term consumption. Rates of cancer, diabetes, heart disease, and other illnesses continue to rise as do the consumption of these additives. One way to avoid these ingredients is to purchase Organic. It’s important to note though that junk food is junk food – regardless of whether it is organic or not. However, I believe in moderation and living by the 80/20 rule…nourish our bodies 80% of the time and feel free to indulge and live life the other 20%.
Being healthy isn’t about what we consume here or there but the cumulative effects of what we consume over a lifetime. Be aware, be educated, and question what you put in to your body.
“Don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food.” – Michael Pollan, Food Rules