You are what you eat. And what you eat defines how you feel. And how you feel is how you look like. So there are plenty of reasons you should care about what goes on your plate and into your body. But the most important of all – that is your health. When we think about food that could do us harm (ironically, the main purpose of food is to keep us healthy), fast food and junk food are first to come up to our minds. But then, it’s just the beginning. Processed and packaged food has almost entirely taken over our diets in this fast-paced world. And virtually anything – from the bagged rice or pasta to the canned tomatoes or beans and your bread could contain chemicals of concern.
All food contain chemicals. Some are employed in food production and preservation. Food additives prolong the shelf life of foods. Color additives make it more visually appealing. Flavorings are an important component of the taste we experience. Unfortunately, some of them come with toxicological properties. They could do us harm if we are exposed for a long time and at high levels. Food packaging – bottles, boxes, cups or plates – can contain chemicals such as plastic, that could partially pass to our food.
We are also exposed to both naturally occurring and man-made chemical compounds present in the environment. The bottom line, on purpose or accidentally – harmful chemicals are sneaking around in all grocery stores and supermarkets. And we should learn to recognize and avoid them. And the first step is looking through this list of the most common harmful ingredients in the food supply.
Ingredients of concern
You will find them in cakes, cookies, crackers, icings, kinds of margarine, and popcorn…and many other junk foods you love. They are among the most harmful food substances you could include in your menu. They are used to prolong the shelf life of products and increase flavor stability. Trans fat is made from vegetable oils through a process called hydrogenation. Partially Hydrogenated Oils are the primary source of artificial trans fat in commercially produced and processed foods.
Trans fats are known to increase LDL (“bad”) cholesterol levels while decreasing HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Consuming too much of it can lead to high blood pressure, an increased risk of heart attacks, heart disease, and strokes, increased inflammation or diabetes.
In the United States, FDA requires that trans fats are listed on the Nutrition Facts Panel, right below saturated fats. And Partially Hydrogenated Oils are no longer considered Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS), FDA taking steps to removing them from all products by 2018. We should also note here that if a product contains less than 0.5 grams of trans fats, FDA allows that to be expressed as zero content. Though, If the ingredient list includes terms like “shortening,” “partially hydrogenated vegetable oil” or “hydrogenated vegetable oil,” the product definitely contains some amount of trans fat.
So, check the labels and try to keep your consumption of trans fats (and unsaturated fats) at the lowest level possible. Compare foods, FDA advises. The serving sizes are usually consistent in similar types of foods. Try replacing saturated fat, trans fat, and cholesterol with mono- and polyunsaturated fats. The latter do not raise LDL (or “bad”) cholesterol levels. Substitute margarine with olive oil for monounsaturated fats. Polyunsaturated fats can be found in sunflower and corn oil, as well as in nuts and fish.
It’s a large group of ingredients that add sweetness to our diet. But sometimes, it’s just too much for the body. These include sugars and syrups that are included in foods or beverages during preparation and processing. Sure, there are natural sugars found in milk and fruits, but we’re not discussing them in this section. We’re talking about white granulated sugar, corn syrup, corn syrup solids, high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS), maple syrup, maltose, lactose and many more.
They provide no nutritional benefit to your body, but many added calories that can lead to extra weight gain, and, some of them could do even more harm.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
is extracted from corn syrup. It undergoes enzymatic processing to increase the fructose content and is then mixed with glucose. The chemical solvent glutaraldehyde is highly involved in this process.
Studies find evidence that High Fructose Corn Syrup is different in structure from cane sugar. They suggest that it is absorbed more rapidly, and doesn’t stimulate insulin or leptin production. This confuses processes in your body and signals for being full fail to come on time. Thus, it may lead to over-consumption and weight gain. Fructose goes right to the liver and may be the cause for liver damage (the so-called “fatty liver”).
In addition, fructose may deplete your body’s reserves of chromium, a mineral important for healthy levels of cholesterol, insulin, and blood sugar. Another study suggests that high fructose corn syrup often contains mercury as a result of applying chloralkali products during a manufacturing process. FDA, however, denies the presence of any conclusive evidence that there is a difference in safety between foods containing HFCS 42 or HFCS 55 and foods containing similar amounts of other nutritive sweeteners with approximately equal glucose and fructose content (sucrose, honey, or other traditional sweeteners).
Still be sure to read the labels and to limit the overall consumption of added sugars in your daily calorie intake to the recommended (by the American Heart Association) about 6 teaspoons of sugar per day (100 calories) for women and 9 teaspoons (150 calories) for men.
Many processed and packaged foods are stuffed with sodium. It is used in curing meat, baking, thickening, to keep moist, enhance flavor, or as a preservative. Getting more Sodium than your body needs is a problem. Foods that usually contain high amounts of sodium include packaged or prepared meat, poultry, and seafood products, salad dressings and seasonings, sandwiches, pizzas, soups, packaged pasta dishes, sauces, bread, and rolls.
Unlike sea salt or pink Himalayan salt, full of trace minerals to support a healthy body such as selenium, chromium, and zinc, processed white salt is usually deprived of that privilege. Besides, evidence has linked excess sodium intake with high blood pressure, which increases the risk of heart attack, stroke, and heart failure. The American Heart Association even states there is evidence that if the U.S. population reduced their sodium intake to 1,500 mg/day, it could result in a 25.6% overall decrease in blood pressure and an estimated $26.2 billion in health care savings.
So when shopping, read labels carefully and compare sodium content in similar products to choose the best fit for you (the lowest sodium content). Look for “no salt added” labeled products or the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark proving the products meets the Association’s sodium criteria. But always check the “Nutrition Facts” panel – it will give you the real sodium count. At home, use herbs and spices and vinegar to add flavor to your meals and reduce the need to add more salt. Try consuming enough potassium-rich products like sweet potatoes, potatoes, tomatoes, kidney beans, oranges, bananas, and cantaloupe.
Propyl gallate (E310)
It is used in products that contain edible fats, such as sausage and lard. But you’ll find it also in soup mixes, microwaveable popcorn, chewing gum, mayonnaise, and frozen meals. On the labels, it may look like E310.
Health concerns: The FDA lists it as GRAS. There are, however, studies that raise the question of is it really completely safe. They find links between Propyl gallate and tumors in male rats and rare brain tumors in two female rats (NTP 1982). The European Food Safety Authority issues a statement claiming those studies are outdated and of low quality. It is also suggested that this preservative may be an endocrine disruptor.
Sodium Nitrite/ Nitrate
They assist in preventing harmful bacteria growth. Available in nearly all processed meats. This includes bacon, ham, corned beef, smoked fish, lunch meat. It gives that fresh red color that sells.
Health concerns: Studies suggest that high consumption of processed meat may increase the risk of stomach cancer and many believe Sodium Nitrite/Nitrate are among the main causes. It is believed that nitrites become harmful when processed in high temperatures. High heat, in the presence of amino acids, turn them into compounds called nitrosamines known to potentially cause cancer.
Choose fresh, organic meats. If you are to reach for processed meat, read the labels carefully. Buy high-quality bacon or sausages that are nitrate-free. But truly nitrate-free. Some products labeled “nitrate-free” or “uncured” actually contain celery juice instead, which is high in nitrates. And remember – burnt bacon is the worst you can serve yourself or your family.
Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Benzoate
Found in carbonated sodas, fruit juice, vinegar, wine, and pickles, salad dressings. They are used to prevent mold in products and extend shelf life. They contain chemically synthesized benzoic acid.
Health concerns: When mixed with Vitamin C or citric acid they form a new compound – benzene – known to be cancerogenic. A study shows that Sodium Benzoate significantly increased damage to DNA when it was injected to the cells in various concentrations. It is also suggested that light exposure and heat can increase the levels of these chemicals in soft drinks. Though, the US FDA and the Canadian Health Protection Branch consider them safe in food in low concentrations.
Sodium Sulfite (E221)
Used as a preservative, oxidizing and bleaching agent. It prevents spoilage and discoloration. Its use in meat products is not allowed, as it may mask bacterial spoilage characterized by discoloration. It also removes Vitamin B1 from food. Used as a bread enhancer and in alcoholic beverages like wine and beer. Approved in the EU for use in dried fruit to prevent discoloration.
Health concerns: According to FDA, one in 100 people is sensitive to sulfites in food. That is why they are prohibited for use on fresh fruits and vegetables. Individuals who are sulfite sensitive may experience headaches, breathing problems, and rashes.
BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) & BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) (E320)
If you are a fan of cereals, chewing gums, potato chips, frozen sausages you are definitely getting some of these bad companions. They serve to protect foods from spoilage and keep their color or flavor. They are present in hundreds of products, and their packaging as well.
Health concerns: According to the National Toxicology Program (NTP) Report on Carcinogens, 12th Edition, BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen” based on evidence from animal studies. The International Agency for Research on Cancer also declared them to be cancerogenic. Both chemicals are linked to endocrine disruption, impacting male fertility, and organ-system toxicity.
Sulfur Dioxide (E220)
It is typically found in soft drinks, beer, dried fruit, juices, wine, vinegar, and potato products. Sulfur Dioxide (E220) is derived from coal tar.
Health concerns: It can cause adverse reactions such as bronchial problems particularly in those prone to asthma, low blood pressure, flushing, or anaphylactic shock. A study claims one in nine people suffering from asthma show deterioration when drinking ‘soft drinks’ with sulfur dioxide. It also destroys vitamins B1 and E. The amount of sulfur dioxide in foods is limited by regulation in the UK, by a directive in the EEC, and by recommendations to ‘good manufacturing practice’ in the USA. The International Labour Organization advises you to avoid E220 if you suffer from conjunctivitis, bronchitis, emphysema, bronchial asthma, or cardiovascular disease. Not recommended for children.
Used to whiten and brighten food and other consumer products, such as cosmetics. Typically found in your favorite lollies.
Health concerns: The French National Institute for Agricultural Research published a study presenting for the first time evidence that titanium dioxide nanoparticles are absorbed and passed into the bloodstream of animals after oral exposure. The study claims that regular intake of titanium dioxide can lead to a non-malignant stage of carcinogenesis (in 40% of studied animals).
Artificial sweeteners have been designed to lower your consumption of sugar providing sweetness with few to zero calories. Additives such as Aspartame, Saccharin, and Sucralose are just a few approved for use by the US FDA.
Also listed as E951or Nutrasweet®, Equal®, and Sugar Twin®. Over 200 million people around the world consume aspartame. Over 6000 products contain aspartame, including but not limited to puddings, fillings, confections, chewing gum, frozen desserts, gelatins, carbonated soft drinks, even yogurt. The only high-intensity sweetener approved as a nutritive sweetener, meaning it contains a little more than 2% of the calories in the equivalent quantity of sugar.
Sucralose is about 600 times sweeter than sugar. Found in baked goods, beverages, chewing gum, gelatins, and frozen dairy desserts.
Health concerns: There are over 100 studies to support the safety of aspartame and sucralose. However, the accepted daily intake for Aspartame is set to be about 100 times less than the smallest amount that might cause health concerns. And the latter include claims ranging from mild problems such as headache, dizziness, digestive symptoms, and changes in mood, to serious health hazards such as Alzheimer disease, birth defects, diabetes, Gulf War syndrome, attention deficit disorders, Parkinson disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and seizures. Aspartame is believed to cause cancer through expert agencies have not found conclusive evidence for that yet.
Participants in the San Antonio Heart Study who drank more than 21 diet drinks per week were twice as likely to become obese as people who didn’t drink diet soda. Also, according to the Multiethnic Study of Atherosclerosis, consumption of diet drinks on a daily basis can lead to a 36% greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67% increased risk for diabetes. It is known that people with phenylketonuria must avoid it. Research on artificial sweeteners continues today.
In the meantime, avoiding artificial sweeteners doesn’t hurt. Check the labels – they are to be listed there. Fresh fruit and organic fresh juice or water could do a better work for you!
Most artificial food colors are derived from petroleum. Some may be contaminated with aluminum. And this speaks for itself.
Blue #1 and Blue #2 (E133)
Used in candy, cereal, soft drinks, and even pet foods.
Health concerns: There are many claims that it causes allergic reactions. This color additive has already been banned in Austria, Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany and Norway.
Red dye # 3 (also Red #40 – a more current dye) (E124)
Found in desserts, jellies, puddings, seafood dressings, canned strawberries, cheesecakes, soups and more.
Health concerns: Debate over the safety of this additive has led to its being prohibited in the United States and Norway. It can cause allergic reactions, especially with asthmatics and aspirin-intolerant people. Claimed to cause thyroid cancer and chromosomal damage in laboratory animals, possible disruption of brain-nerve transmission. Absolutely to be excluded from children’s menu.
Yellow #6 (E110) and Yellow Tartrazine (E102)
Color additives used to color soft drinks such as lemonade, macaroni, cheese, candies.
Health concerns: It is known to cause allergic reactions. Comes with many side effects, including urticaria, rhinitis, nasal congestion, allergies, kidney tumors, chromosomal damage, abdominal pain, nausea, distaste for food. Finland and Norway have prohibited its use in foods.
Flavorings and taste enhancers
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG / E621)
Glutamate is a food enhancer naturally present in many foods, including tomatoes and cheeses. The one used in processed food, however, is separated from their host proteins through a process called hydrolysis. You will find MSG in nearly all addictive foods such as snacks, chips, cookies, Chinese food, frozen meats.
Health concerns: It is known as a neurotoxin. There are studies linking regular consumption of MSG to health disorders such as depression, headache, fatigue, disorientation. It might be a reason for excessive weight gain since it dulls receptors telling your body you’ve taken enough calories.
Check the ingredient list on the labels to avoid those containing Monosodium Glutamate. FDA, however, warns that MSG occurs naturally in ingredients such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts, and protein isolate. Products listing those ingredients don’t list MSG separately or mention that they naturally contain MSG. It is not required by law.
Commonly added to sodas (especially dark ones) and other processed foods (cereals, nondairy creamers) and beverages (iced teas, bottled and canned coffee). Flavor gets more intense. The chemical also prevents bacteria growth (or at least slows it down). A curious fact is that Phosphoric acid is capable of removing rust from metal! What could it do to your body?
Health concerns: It is reported to lower bone density, to cause chronic kidney disease and can decrease the level of calcium in your body. As well as deprive you of some vital nutrients like iron, magnesium, and zinc.
Look for these variations on the food labels: E338, Orthophosphoric acid, Phosphoric(V) acid, Pyrophosphoric acid, Triphosphate acid, o-Phosphoric acid, Hydrogen phosphate. If you see it, you might reconsider your purchase. Lower your soda intake as much as possible – why not choose sparkling mineral water instead?
It is a structural component in plastic beverage bottles and metal can coatings. In other words – what most food packaging is made of.
Health concerns: You can be exposed to BPA through its migration from plastic packaging to the food. It is suspected to cause cancer, hormone disruptions, and infertility. BPA is known to mimic estrogen. Possible negative health impact includes behavioral disorders, diabetes, and obesity.
I believe there is not a single person in this world that hasn’t heard about and consumed GMOs. 70% of all food we eat contain genetically modified ingredients. It’s impossible to go shopping without taking home some of them. But they are typically found in certain foods, including corn-, soy-, cottonseed-, canola-, and sugar beet-based ingredients.
Health concerns: There are hundreds of studies linking GMOs to adverse health effects. Almost as much try to prove their safety. GMOs are linked to health problems, such as infertility, organ damage, immune disorders, accelerated aging.
Stay on the safe side. Though not an easy task, avoiding GMOs is possible. Buy organic food since GMOs aren’t allowed in certified organic foods. Avoid food and beverages containing soy or corn as often as possible. This (surprisingly!) includes soda (for the high-fructose corn syrup!). Eat more (organic!) vegetables, because animals are commonly fed GMOs.
It is added to flour to strengthen the dough, increase the volume and to generally make bread look more appealing.
Health concerns: It is a possible cancerogen. In 1999 the International Agency for Research on Cancer claimed that potassium bromate is a possible human carcinogen. Potassium Bromate is banned as a food additive in the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil and the European Union.
A chemical formed when you cook, bake, fry or grill your carbohydrate-rich food at high temperature (typically found in foods made from plants, such as potato products, grain products, or coffee). It is formed by sugars and an amino acid naturally present in food.
Health concerns: Acrylamide caused cancer in animals in studies where animals were exposed to acrylamide at very high doses. Believed to be a health hazard to human beings, too.
Try not to cook your food at high temperature or for a long time. Boiling and steaming seem to be a much healthier processing alternative, so try stick to it. Eat more raw plant-based foods. Also, you could avoid cooking at high heat starchy plant foods that have the potential to form Acrylamide – potatoes (French fries and potato chips), grain products (such as breakfast cereal, cookies, and toast, but include enough healthy whole grain foods).
My Way Out
Looking at this long list, food industry seems to be a pretty scary science. However, it’s up to you which foods you let enter your kitchen. There are some tips to follow to reduce harmful ingredients to a minimum level.
First, eat as much fresh food as possible – raw fruit and vegetables, salads. Second, make sure where food comes from. The best way is to produce it and cook it yourself. But, let’s be honest, we’re not all agriculture experts and master chefs, right? However, you can look for organically produced food in eco-friendly packaging in your local healthy store. Also, buy local, from verified farmers or producers. Cook your own food. I know it takes time and modern fast-paced busy life has deprived us of this privilege, but it is achievable. And believe me, tastier than what’s in that ready-to-go plastic box. Third, read the labels and the Nutrition Facts Panel on all products you choose to buy, compare content and choose those with lowest to zero harmful ingredients in it. And you’re three steps further to a life in harmony with your healthy body!
Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for medical advice. Please consult a qualified health care professional for personalized medical advice.