You’ve probably heard about the ‘dangers’ of processed food before. The more processed and refined a food is, the more likely it is to be stripped of nutrition and reliant on a long list of additives for flavor, shelf-life and even its appearance. Foods like hot dogs, French fries, frozen pizza, gum drops, non-dairy creamer and tater tots may come to mind, but even cereal, crackers, bread and pasta are examples of processed foods.
So are all processed foods inherently ‘bad’ for you?
Not necessarily, although unprocessed whole foods – lean meats, fresh vegetables and fruits, beans, and so on – are among the healthiest foods you can eat while certain processed foods are easily among the worst. Generally speaking, processed foods with the fewest number of ingredients and additives are going to be your best choices, if you’re going the processed food route. Whole-grain bread, cheese, yogurt, a jar of spaghetti sauce made with only tomatoes, olive oil and spices, or minimally processed foods like nuts and olive oil, are examples of processed foods that can be a part of a healthy diet.
However, if you’re like most Americans, about 70 percent of your calories come from processed foods, many of them loaded with hidden and potentially dangerous additives. This represents the majority of the daily diet for many, and at these high amounts processed foods may contribute to chronic conditions like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and even cancer. Part of the problem is that processed junk foods are typically high in sugar, salt and unhealthy fats … another issue is the toxic effects of the additives they contain …
Top 8 Processed Food Additives to Avoid
There are more than 3,000 food additives in use in the United States. Some, like baking soda and yeast, are mostly innocuous … others, not so much. If you eat processed foods (and virtually all Americans do), at least make sure to read the ingredients list and avoid any products that contain the following additives. They are, without question, among the worst on the market.
1. Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
This is a surefire signal that the food contains trans fats, a manmade fat linked to heart disease, stroke, diabetes, cancer and more. The US government has stated that there is likely no safe level of trans fats, meaning you should eat as little as possible (if any).[i]
If a food label claims to be trans-fat free yet contains partially hydrogenated oil, don’t be fooled – it still contains a small amount, as a food that contains 0.5 grams or less of trans fat per serving, it can claim to be trans-fat “free” or to have “0 grams of trans fats.” Since many people eat double, triple or more of the recommended serving size of foods, you may be ingesting 1 gram or more of trans fat per serving, even if it claims to be trans-fat free.
Healthier Alternatives: Many processed foods are now made without partially hydrogenated oils, so choose these options instead. Also opt for natural fats, such as butter or coconut oil, in lieu of artificial trans fats.
2. BHA and BHT
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) are widely used in foods like vegetable oil, sausage, cereal, cookies, chips, popcorn and other snack foods as a preservative to prevent oils from becoming rancid. While the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers BHA and BHT generally recognized as safe (GRAS), they’ve been banned in other countries because of concerns that they may cause cancer.
Healthier Alternatives: Choose foods preserved with natural vitamin E, or those that contain no preservatives at all, instead.
3. High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Fructose is linked to the development of metabolic syndrome[ii] (the cluster of symptoms that increase a patient’s risks of diabetes, stroke and heart disease), diabetes, obesity and cancer, among other chronic diseases. One study even found that fructose may activate an important pathway that spurs cell division, thus speeding the growth of certain cancer cells.[iii] Further fructose is metabolized primarily by your liver, whereas glucose is metabolized by all cells in your body.
There is also evidence that when fructose is consumed in liquid form, as most HFCS is (in soda, particularly), it hits your liver even harder. A large part of fructose’s toxicity is due to the large amounts consumed, as the average American eats 131 calories worth of HFCS a day (and this is down considerably from 2007).[iv]
Healthier Alternatives: Opt for lower sugar foods or those that use only natural sweeteners such as applesauce, raisins or pureed ripe bananas.
4. Artificial Colors
These are synthetic chemicals often made from cola tar and petroleum that add no value to your food while increasing your risk of harm. Ideally, avoid all artificially colored foods, but at least steer clear of:[v]
- Blue 2: Potentially linked to brain cancer
- Green 3: Possibly carcinogenic
- Orange B: May be harmful to your liver
- Red 3: May cause thyroid tumors
- Yellow 5: One of the most widely used colors, it may lead to allergy-like reactions and hyperactivity, and may be contaminated with cancer-causing substances
- Yellow 6: Also widely used, yellow 6 may lead to adrenal gland and kidney tumors
Healthier Alternatives: Look for natural food colors made from plants or, alternatively, choose foods that are naturally colorful, like berries, tomatoes and peppers.
This artificial sweetener is widely used in diet drinks and foods, but research suggests it may be linked to cancer, preterm delivery, headaches and dizziness.
Healthier Alternatives: Try stevia, a naturally sweet South American herb.
6. Potassium Bromate
This additive is used to improve the texture and volume of bread products, however it’s banned in most other countries because bromate causes cancer in animals. While most bromate breaks down into non-toxic bromide, even the small amounts left may be toxic.
Healthier Alternatives: Choose bread products free from this non-essential additive or bake your own bread at home.
7. Propyl Gallate
Often used in conjunction with BHA and BHT, this preservative is used to keep fats and oils from going rancid. There is concern that propyl gallate may be an endocrine disrupter and carcinogen at low levels.[vi]
Healthier Alternatives: This additive is often used in vegetable oil; minimally processed, additive-free oils instead, and purchase them in smaller bottles so you can use them up before they go bad.
8. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
MSG is used as a flavor enhancer in soup, salad dressing, frozen entrees and restaurant foods, but research suggests it may harm nerve cells in the brain in large amounts. Certain people are especially sensitive to MSG and may suffer reactions such as headache, nausea, difficulty breathing and changes in heart rate.[vii]
Healthier Alternatives: Look for natural and organic processed foods that do not contain MSG, and ask about whether certain entrees contain it when you’re eating at a restaurant. Use herbs and spices liberally in your cooking for a natural and healthy flavor boost.
What’s the Best Way to Avoid Harmful Processed Food Additives?
Try to focus your diet on fresh whole foods and do most of your cooking at home. When purchasing processed foods, choose those with the fewest number of ingredients you can find, such as five or fewer. Organic processed foods will also generally contain more natural ingredients than non-organic versions.