Have you ever taken the time to look at the ingredients lists of the commonly consumed pre-packaged foods like cereals, candies, condiments, etc.? If you have, you may have noticed that lots of items contain a long list of ingredients, lots of which you may be completely unfamiliar with. And if you’re curious to learn about these things, you may find yourself diving into a tedious and time-consuming google search in the middle of the grocery store. It can be overwhelming when you begin to attempt being mindful about the food additives that you consume and want to avoid potential toxins. I tend to advocate whole and fresh foods over pre-packaged and shelf stable ones, but I am aware that adhering to this one hundred percent of the time is unsustainable in our modern world. So when we do choose to consume packaged goods, which food additives should we avoid? Of which ingredients should we be most wary? I have constructed a list of ingredients that I believe are the most important for avoiding detrimental health effects.
1. Trans fats
Hydrogenation is a process that is used to preserve and extend the shelf-life of foods. Hydrogenated oils (also called trans fats) increase LDL cholesterol and raise the risk of developing atherosclerosis. A mother’s intake of trans-fatty acids may also contribute to a delay in infant development. Trans fatty acid consumption has also been linked to the development of chronic diseases, including cardiovascular illnesses and various types of cancer. Although the use of trans fats has decreased as knowledge regarding them has increased, they can still be found in some products, including peanut butter, microwave popcorn, and fast food products.
2. Processed vegetable oils
Vegetable oils (which are sometimes referred to as “crop oils”) include things like canola oil, corn oil, safflower oil, cottonseed oil, soybean oil, etc, which can be found in most pre-packaged foods. These foods come with two major problems. First, most of them contain high amounts of omega-6 fatty acids and low amounts of omega-3 fatty acids. While we do need both of them for survival, our omega-6 to omega-3 consumption ratio should be 4:1 at most. Unfortunately, in the Western world, the average ratio looks more like 16:1, which has been linked to some of the health problems that we face, including insulin resistance, cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Another problem with vegetable oils is their susceptibility to oxidation. The fatty acid profiles of most vegetable oils are very high in polyunsaturated fats, which makes them more vulnerable to damage. Oxidation can take place with heating, light exposure, and air exposure, all of which can happen during the extraction of the oils and/or the manufacturing and packaging of the products in which they are used. Consumption of oxidized oils can cause DNA damage, cellular damage, and plaque accumulation in blood vessels, which can cause cancer, CVD, and organ dysfunction.
3. High fructose corn syrup
High fructose corn syrup is a commonly used sweetener for prepackaged foods because of its low cost and high potency. It is typically found in foods such as sweet beverages, baked goods, jellies, candies, etc. One big problem with this form of sweetener is that it’s highly concentrated with fructose. Fructose, as opposed to glucose, does not stimulate the release of leptin, which is a hormone that induces satiety. This means that a person that consumes high amounts of fructose is more likely to overeat because of a lack of satiation. Aside from this, some studies also suggest that fructose leads to an increase in abdominal fat mass even when controlling for calories. High fructose corn syrup consumption has been associated with type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and other obesity-related illnesses.
4. Artificial dyes/colors
These include yellow no. 5&6, red no. 3&40, blue no. 1&2, and green no. 3. These are commonly added to things like candies, frostings, colored beverages, and flavored medications. Although most of the studies regarding these food dyes have been conducted on mice, it is important to be aware of what these experiments have indicated, and what they can potentially mean for humans. Yellow 5 and red 40 have been shown to potentially increase hyperactivity and anxiety/depression-related symptoms. Yellow 6, blue 1&2, green 3, and red 3&40 have been shown to induce tumor development and/or growth in animal studies.
This is a zero-calorie sweetener sold under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal. There have been plenty of animals studies conducted that suggest that aspartame poses a danger to human health. These studies conclude that this artificial sweetener can have carcinogenic effects and induce brain cell death on doses that are deemed safe for daily consumption. Some short-term studies performed on humans have shown an increase in irritability, mood swings, and depression in the presence of aspartame consumption. Aspartame is also associated with more weight gain and insulin resistance, which makes it a possible contributor to blood sugar-related illnesses like type 2 diabetes.
6. Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
Monosodium glutamate is an additive that is used to enhance flavor in foods. It can typically be found in packaged convenience foods like chips, frozen dinners, and quick cooking items (like powdered gravies and mashed potatoes). MSG is also typically used in both fast food and dine-in restaurants. MSG has been shown to induce symptoms of type 2 diabetes, overeating, obesity, and liver damage. Research studies performed on human populations that control for caloric intake and energy expenditure have also indicated an association between MSG consumption and increased BMI and obesity. This indicates that monosodium glutamate consumption can potentially be a contributor to the obesity epidemic in the western world because of its frequent use in processed foods.
7. Sodium benzoate
Sodium benzoate is used in foods as a preservative and is most commonly found in condiments, salad dressings, fruit juices, and pickled foods. This additive poses a potential danger to our cellular health. Human lymphocyte studies (studies done on human cells) have shown that it can induce DNA and cellular damage, which can lead to cancer development. Furthermore, experimental dietary interventions indicate that sodium benzoate consumption may induce hyperactivity in young children.
8. BHA & BHT
Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA) and butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) are preservatives used in packaged foods to prevent oil rancidity. In this way they act as antioxidants, and BHT is sometimes sold as an antioxidant supplement. Unfortunately, BHA and BHT have been shown to have carcinogenic effects on the liver, stomach, and bladder in animal studies. Negative effects on reproductive organs and hormones in both male and female subjects have also been documented, which makes them a potential endocrine disrupter.
9. Natural flavors
According to the USDA:
“The term natural flavor or natural flavoring means the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Because this is a somewhat vague definition, it leaves a lot of room for the inclusion of possible harmful ingredients. The worst part is that a consumer cannot know exactly which or how many additives are being label as “natural flavors”. Because of the lack of transparency in this particular ingredient, I advise caution when consuming a food that includes it.
The additives that I have listed are extremely common, which may feel problematic at first. Fortunately for us, the wonders of the 21st century have brought a long list of companies that are determined to provide their consumers with more healthful versions of the original pre-packaged foods. You can find ketchups, breads, crackers, cookies, etc. that do not contain the above mentioned additives, but you must be looking for them if you want to find them, and they are usually pricier than the typical versions of these foods. But you can use this as a source of encouragement to steer you towards consuming more wholesome and home-cooked meals.