Okay, full disclaimer here. I've been wanting to share some information with you about some really nasty stuff that's in our food, and when we created our "How to Crack the Food Label Code" resource guide I thought it would be a perfect opportunity. Well, I have to admit that my old scientist brain has gotten the best of me and I have included a lot of info in this blog post about SIX food additives that I think you should watch out for and avoid then as if your life depends on it....because it does!
If you want the cliff notes version than download our guide, but I hope you'll read on and take a bit away that just might change the way that you look at food labels and what food you consider acceptable for you and your family going forward.
For a long time I thought I was eating healthy, but I wasn't really paying attention to what was actually in my food! So much food is packaged to appear healthy, but when you start reading the ingredients you'll often find that's not really the case.
Over the past few years I've taken a greater interest in understanding what's in my food, and learning why some of the ingredients that are listed can be particularly bad for you.
I try to eat a whole foods based diet - in other words, food that is just the way mother nature intended for it to be. Unadulterated, fresh, and natural. This includes lots of fruits and veggies, whole fat dairy, lean meats and seafood, whole grains, nuts, and beans.
I'm sure you've heard that when you grocery shop you should shop the perimeter. This is great advice! That's generally where all of the fresh, whole foods are located.
It's when you start working your way down the aisles that things can get a little hairy. But packaged food has a place in our lives, and I admit that I enjoy a number of products that are packaged such as crackers, rice and other grains that include a convenient spice packet, snack foods, breads, nut butters, ice cream, and so forth. One rule of thumb that I use in my shopping is to look for packaged foods with 5 or less ingredients. Generally speaking, when there are fewer ingredients they are all ingredients that you're familiar with....and are the ingredients that YOU would use if you were to actually prepare the food yourself. For example, my go-to crackers have THREE ingredients....Whole Grain Wheat, Safflower Oil and Salt. That sounds like what I'd use if I were to actually make these crackers myself!
I've looked at labels in the past....but funny enough I always looked at the number of calories and less at the ingredients. Who knows what I'm talking about? But we have to acknowledge that all calories are not created equally. For example, 100 calories of almonds is NOT the same as 100 calories of Oreo cookies! So the number of calories is probably the least useful piece of info on the label.
These days I look at the ingredients, and how much ADDED sugar is in the food. It seems silly to me that there is added sugar in something like mayonnaise. I don't know about you, but when I get all crazy and make mayo myself I do not add sugar to it!
Now, I admit, I love me some snack foods and other packaged foods that have a few more ingredients included than if I were to make it on my own, but there are SIX ingredients that I really look out for and I will always put the item back if any of these are in the ingredients.
#1: Artificial Sugar: This is an absolute NO WAY in my diet. These products are pure chemicals, do not exist anywhere in nature, and NOT good for you at all because your body simply doesn't recognize them as food and this can really wreck havoc on your metabolism and health in general. If I want a little sweet in my food or drink I'll add a little local honey and it hits the spot. It's all about moderation.
There are three main types of artificial sugar that you may use in your coffee or baking, or that you'll find in your food.
One of my favorite stories that I came across is about a chemist named Constantin Fahlberg, who in 1879 accidentally discovered saccharin (a.k.a Sweet-n-Low). Fahlberg was in his lab working with a chemical called toluene, a clear, colorless liquid produced in the process of making coal. Its sweet aroma is often recognized in gasoline or paint thinner. Yeah, right! I'm serious! Look it up! Fahlberg accidentally spilled some and got it on his hands. Given that clean laboratory practices weren't quite what they are today back in 1879 he went off to lunch without washing his hands and noticed that his food tasted sweet...and that's how saccharin came to be invented! Count me out!
I'm sure you've heard of aspartame. Aspartame is what Equal and Neutra-sweet is made with. This artificial sugar has received some more significant mainstream coverage about the potential health concerns. The FDA once listed 92 different symptoms associated with the use of aspartame, that were confirmed through controlled studies. These symptoms include depression, irritability, heart palpitations, diarrhea, joint pain, memory loss, confusion, aggravation of diabetes...the list goes on for 84 more symptoms!
Sucralose is the newest to come to the market in the form of Splenda, and what really blows my mind about this chemical sugar substitute is actually starts out as sucrose (a real sugar) but undergoes a complex five-step chemical process that involves many caustic chemicals, which selectively substitutes the three atoms of chlorine for three hydrogen-oxygen groups on the sucrose molecule, creating a substance that is called a polychlorinated compound. I don't know about you, but I don't want to eat anything that is a polychlorinated compound! Other polychlorinated compounds are insecticides, such as DDT, which can accumulate in the body's fat and tissues.
Need I say any more?
#2 MSG: There is no doubt that food containing MSG tastes really good. I totally admit it! For many years I knowingly ate foods containing MSG because I just loved them so much. My favorite packaged rice and beans that I used in burritos contained MSG as did my all time favorite beef jerky. But once I started to learn about the harmful effects of MSG I became quite strict about eating anything containing it.
There are all kinds of problems with MSG. First of all it's highly addictive, and I'm sure that is why even though I knew it was in some of the foods I was eating I really loved those foods and didn't want to stop eating them. I think that speaks for itself!
MSG is a flavor enhancer that lights up our tasted buds and not only makes us eat more, but also makes us eat faster. The foods that contain the most MSG are highly processed foods that are fat free or sugar free. This is because when you start stripping out the natural sugars and fats from food they start to taste not so good....so the manufacturer has to trick our brains into liking it. This is one of many reasons why you should eat foods in their WHOLE form including naturally occurring sugars and fats.
Both MSG and Aspartame are called excitotoxins and are linked to serious diseases such as Alzheimer's, Parkinson's, multiple sclerosis and other neurodegenerative diseases. I have Alzheimer's in my family history, so I want to do anything possible to prevent developing this terrible disease, and one way of doing that is to avoid these two chemical food additives.
You have to be careful when it comes to MSG, because it's often hidden in the ingredient that is listed as "seasonings". It is nearly impossible to be sure if there is MSG in the ingredients because the FDA does not require food manufacturers to list it as an ingredient. MSG is one of the ingredients used to make a number of other food additives, and only the name of the new chemical needs to be listed. Some MSG ingredients you may have seen on ingredients lists includes autolyzed yeast, anything hydrolyzed such as hydrolyzed soy protein, or hydrolyzed yeast, maltodextrin, isolated soy protein, textured soy protein, yeast extract, and natural flavorings...which brings me to #3...
#3. Artificial Flavorings & Natural Flavorings: This is a tricky one because one sounds far less harmful than the other, but the reality is that both are made in the laboratory. There is a BIG difference between Natural Flavors and Natural Flavorings...and it's important to keep them straight in your head.
What's crazy about artificial flavorings is that they are made up of a laundry list of ingredients, and the FDA does not require companies to disclose the ingredients that are used to make the artificial flavoring as long as the chemicals used are "generally regarded as safe", which is a whole other subject of what defines a chemical as "generally regarded as safe". Anything that is "generally" safe is suspect to me and I'd rather avoid it and eat the real flavors that mother nature blesses us with in whole foods!
Natural flavorings are also made in the laboratory. They have the same or similar chemical make up of natural foods, but they are not naturally occurring or derived from actual food. An example you may be familiar with is real vanilla extract vs artificial vanilla flavoring. Both smell and taste almost alike, but the latter is made in a laboratory. I'd rather have the real stuff that Mother Nature gave us.
#4. Sodium Nitrates and Sodium Nitrites: It can be really hard to find certain foods that don't contain sodium nitrates or nitrites. They are commonly added to cured and processed meats. Their primary purpose is to prevent botulism and improve color and flavor, which sounds like a decent enough reason for adding them to food, but they're also linked to cancer, including childhood brain tumors and leukemia that has been linked to hotdogs containing nitrates.
There are a lot of nitrate free options available for sandwich meats, bacon, sausage, etc, and it's worth a little extra money to make sure that the option you choose has zero nitrates or nitrites in the ingredients.
#5. BHA, BHT and TBHQ. These chemicals are FAKE antioxidants. The term antioxidant can be a bit misleading because normally we consider antioxidants to be really good. Colorful foods like blueberries are known to be high in antioxidants, and this helps to fend off free radicals that attack the cells in our bodies. Free radicals are unstable molecules that are all around us, so eating other foods high in antioxidants is kind of like the anecdote. But the so called antioxidants in BHA, GHT and TBHQ is quite the opposite! These are man made chemicals that are added to food to prevent oxidation, which in turn preserves fats and prolongs shelf life.
The problem is that these chemicals are linked to cancer, and repeated studies demonstrate that these chemicals accumulate in the body, cause liver enlargement, and retard cell development. Dr. Benjamin Feingold, a diet specialist in the 1970s, found through his studies that BHT could cause hyperactivity in children, so it's disappointing to find this in the ingredients of foods that are mainly consumed by children, such as breakfast cereals, lunch meats, and snack foods.
#6. Trans fats: Last but certainly not least on my list of additives to look out for is Trans Fat. We have all heard about trans fat, and I think many of us already try to avoid it, but we're often tricked into thinking that foods are trans fat free when in fact they aren't. Did you know that a manufacturer can claim that a food product contains ZERO trans fat as long as there is less than 0.25g per serving? The problem is that the serving size can be manipulated to hit this target when in fact you will most likely eat the whole package that is likely to be 2.5 servings or more. So in reality, the serving that YOU ate did contain enough trans fat to make you worried.
The word to look out for on ingredient lists is hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated. This is the fancy word for trans fat. What I find most interesting is what trans fat is from a chemical perspective. If you had to take a chemistry class in high school or college you may remember that molecules exist in either a cis or trans configuration. Naturally occurring fats exist in the cis configuration, which allows for a little bend to occur between a couple of carbon and hydrogen molecules. These fat molecules actually attach to receptors on the surface of cells which allows things to flow in and out of the cell. The problem with trans fats is that the trans configuration of the molecule results in the inability for the molecule to bend the way that the cis version will, and it also becomes much more rigid. It's similar enough to the naturally occurring cis-fats, so they can still attach to those receptors on the cell, but instead of function the way that it should it can block the cell from opening up those pathways for everything to move in and out. This includes the ability for LDL cholesterol to move into the cell from the bloodstream so it builds up in the bloodstream leading to high cholesterol and heart attacks. And prevents sugar from flowing out of the cell and into the blood stream to get used for energy, resulting in diabetes. Additionally, that rigidity in the trans fat molecule causes a stiffness in the cell making your cells stiff, where as the cis fats will allow our cells to be supple and pliable. Because your cells are stiff and not functioning optimally the good essential fats that you're eating aren't able to be properly utilized because the trans fat blocks them from being incorporated into the cells.
The blockage of these cell receptors can lead to all kinds of problems. Trans fats have been linked to cancer, heart disease, multiple sclerosis, and diverticulitis among others. They also weaken the immune system, and decrease the response to insulin, another catalyst for diabetes.
It can be difficult to avoid foods that contain these ingredients. These types of chemicals are in a lot of the foods on the grocery store shelves, but it's worth being extra diligent and at least being aware of where they exist. Even if you can't resist some of the delicious foods that these additives are in, I hope that knowing how harmful they are will help you eat these foods very, very sparingly. They should most definitely NOT be a part of your regular diet.
I hope that you'll be able to use this information to keep yourself and your loved ones healthy and feeling their very best. Don't forget to DOWNLOAD our "How to Crack the Food Label Code" resource guide. It will help set you on the right course and you choose the healthiest, most nutritious foods and avoid the added ingredients that can be a real hazard to your health.
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Hi! My name is Allison Hopkins and I am the owner of Wilcox Wellness & Fitness in Brunswick, ME. I am excited to bring WILCOX to Brunswick and share in my passion for living a great life through health and fitness.