The Dirty 7—7 Ingredients You Don’t Want in Your Food

Written by Anika DeCoster, RD, CPT, CISSN – LifeTime WeightLoss

large_labels_021212America tends to be behind other nations when it comes to allowing controversial food additives in the things we eat.  Although our diets should be rich in whole natural foods as much as possible, sometimes processed foods have a time and a place in our day-to-day lives.  If you do consume processed foods, there are some unique ingredients you should watch out for!  At Life Time, we’ve identified the following ingredients as the dirty seven.  These seven food additives should be on your radar when choosing foods to put in your mouth and they should be avoided as much as possible.  Read on to learn about what our top seven are as well as why and how you should avoid them!

1. High Fructose Corn Syrup

Corn sugar. HFCS has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years.  Deemed to be a main cause of the obesity epidemic, we are consuming more HFCS than ever before. HFCS starts out as cornstarch and then is converted to liquid syrup by the use of enzymes and acids in a food science lab.  Because it is cheaper than real sugar, and doesn’t have the stigma of sugar in its name, food manufacturers have opted to use it as an additive to sweeten their food.  But don’t be fooled, just because it isn’t real sugar, it isn’t better or healthier for you. Some potential effects of high fructose consumption include non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, digestive distress, increased levels of triglycerides and increased risk to developing Type II diabetes or metabolic syndrome.  Those are just a few.

2. Trans Fats (hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils)

Trans fat made its first appearance over 100 years ago, introduced as the very first ‘man-made’ fat in our food supply. They are created by taking a vegetable oil (soybean, cottonseed, etc) and putting it through a process called hydrogenation, which adds hydrogen to that liquid oil turning it into an artificial, solid food ingredient.  By doing this, the fat becomes a preservative, making processed foods last longer as well as giving them a more irresistible taste and texture. These foods are your typical highly processed convenience foods, including stick margarine, peanut butter, baked goods, microwave popcorn and fried restaurant foods. They tend to be over consumed because of how easily they go down and not fill you up.

There is no safe consumable amount of trans fat.  Studies over and again have linked it to raising your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowering your HDL (good) cholesterol, as well as increasing risks for obesity, Type II diabetes, premature heart attacks and even cancer.  Make sure you avoid it at all costs and check for it in the ingredient list first, versus looking at the Nutrition Facts panel.  Food companies are allowed to sneak it in the food in smaller amounts, yet claim “trans fat free” or “zero trans fat” on the label. If you find hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list, make sure you do not consume that product.

3. Artificial Preservatives

Artificial preservatives are a group of chemicals that are added to foods to make them last longer.  For centuries, canning, freezing or even drying have been methods for reducing the spoilage of food from bacteria and/or mold. Some natural food additives, such as olive oil, salt, or even vinegar were used to help keep food longer. Fast forward to present time, artificial preservatives have really only been around since the 2000’s but have high demand to keep up with the highly processed American diet.  Not only are they synthetic when comparing to the natural preserving methods but they cost less money and can keep our popular processed foods low in cost.  But when looking at the health risk of consuming artificial preservatives, the cost differential is astonishing. These synthetic food additives have been linked to hyperactivity, cancer tumors, skin and eye irritation and asthmatic problems.  Many other countries have banned the use of them, although they can be found regularly in the center aisles of grocery stores in America.  Don’t take the risk, limit the amount of processed foods you buy, and when you do, buy the ones that use natural ingredients for preserving such as salt.  On the label, look for and avoid foods that have any of the following; nitrites, nitrates, benzoates, sorbates, propionates, sulfites, BHA, and BHT.

4. Hormones/Antibiotics

Consumers should know that the farming of animals has drastically changed over the last century.  No longer able to graze the land and act like animals, conventional farming confines and crams them into feedlots, often feeding them a non-traditional diet of corn, soy and grains.  Because of these close quarters, disease spreads rapidly and increases a need for antibiotics to be given to the animals to help survive.  The animals are also given hormones to encourage rapid growth to keep up demand of the food.  Not only are the animals not able to act like animals, they aren’t able to grow at their natural pace either.  Long term studies have not been completed on the effects of adding hormones and antibiotics to animals, but hormonal imbalances in humans are becoming more common as well as overexposure and resistance to antibiotics.  When you choose meats without added hormones or antibiotics, you not only decrease your exposure to consuming those byproducts, but you are supporting the humane and ethical treatment of the animal. Look for beef, chicken and eggs marked as grass fed, pasture raised or cage free with the statement of no antibiotics or hormone added on the label.

5. Bleached Flour

Also known as chemical flour, bleached flour has become an industry standard in America. Bleaching agents (such as chlorine gas or benzoyl peroxide) provide a shortcut to aging and whitening fresh milled flour. What’s the problem? Well, bleaching agents alone can be highly irritating to our bodies, not to mention, lethal and dangerous to inhale. There is also a controversial byproduct, called alloxan, that is created from the bleaching process and can be left in the flour. Scientists consider alloxan a toxin and use it to produce diabetes in laboratory animals. This is a big reason why China and countries in Europe have banned the use of bleached flour in their food system. It is also good to know that there have never been any studies done how bleaching flour, and its byproducts, can affect our bodies in the long term, nor has any certain amount been deemed safe to use.

Bleached flour is typically found in starchier foods, such as breads, bakery items, pizza crusts and crackers.  Check the ingredient list, and if it contains bleached flour, benzoyl peroxide or chlorine, put the food back on the shelf.  If buying flour in bulk, purchase the ones that say unbleached and unbromated on the packaging.

6. Artificial Colors

Coloring is added to improve the look and appeal of a food.  This can be done naturally with other foods, such as using the orange color of a sweet potato or the red of a beet. Yet many food companies utilize synthetic chemicals to do so.  Most often found in foods with no nutritional value (candy, desserts, soda, chips, etc), artificial colors can show up in many other foods like cereals, canned fruit, yogurts or even low-quality multivitamins! So what’s wrong with artificial colors? Well they’ve been linked heavily to causing hyperactivity in children as well as increasing risk for tumors, cancer, and allergy-like reactions in humans.  Banned in some European countries, artificial colors are still allowed to be used in food in the United States.  To avoid at all costs, check the ingredient list for the most commonly used colors:  Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Red 3, Blue 1, Blue 2, Orange B, Citrus Red 2 and Green 3.

7. Added/Processed Sugars

Sugar is more readily available in our diet than ever before. In fact, the average American consumes between 90 and 180 pounds of sugar per year.  What’s even more astonishing is a century ago, we were consuming less than one pound. America definitely has a sweet tooth and food companies know it, often adding the cheap, addictive ingredient to many foods that naturally would have none.  But our high intake of sugar is rapidly leading to related health problems, including diabetes and obesity.  To prevent this, avoid buying foods with added sugar at all costs.  Not only avoiding sweet foods, such as candy, soda and bakery items, but check the ingredient list of any other processed food you’d typically put in your shopping cart.  Sugar is infamous for showing up in foods you wouldn’t consider sweet, such as pasta sauce, peanut butter or even popcorn.  Also know that sugar has many disguises on the label, including agave nectar, fructose syrup or even juice concentrate, to just name a few!

Let this list be a starting point for you and your family’s health!  Many times, when food companies use one of these ingredients, the others are right along with it, in the ingredient list.  But the only way you’ll know is by reading the ingredient list of each food.  Be a smart shopper and stick to a foundation of whole natural foods as much as possible.  If and when some processed or packaged foods end up in your cart, be sure they don’t include any of the above!