Public awareness of the health risks associated with processed foods is on the rise, thanks to the growing food movement, political concerns over Big Food like Monsanto, and (like it or not) the popularity of the paleo diet. Ideally, you should avoid foods with more than 5 ingredients or unpronounceable ingredients, but realistically, it may not be possible to stick to these principles all the time. Although few and far between, there are some perfectly healthy processed foods.
I always tell my clients the most important thing to look at on a food package is the ingredients list. It tells you more about a food than anything else. But the ingredients list can be daunting. Sometimes it feels like you need a degree in chemistry to figure out what you’re eating. While some foreign sounding ingredients are perfectly harmless, others are dangerous chemicals lurking in our food supply or a signal that a food may not be as healthy as it appears.
Here is my personal list of the ingredients I look for, and avoid like the plague.
Enriched flour/wheat flour/bleached flour/all-purpose flour
These are all names for white, refined flour. You might be surprised to see this one on this list, as most people consider white flour to be fairly innocuous. Unfortunately, white flour has similar effects on blood glucose as table sugar. It is widespread in our food supply, even in foods that appear to be whole grains. It’s one thing to eat white flour when splurging on good French bread or fresh pasta, but it’s another thing to find it in foods marketed as if they are whole grain, like Wheat Thins, “multigrain” bread and Healthy Harvest pasta. Unfortunately, confusing labeling laws allow foods to be labeled as “made with whole grain,” whole grain,” “whole wheat,” “wheat,” or “multi-grain,” which may give the impression it is 100% whole grain. If you see any of these flours listed, the food is either a blend of whole grain and refined grain or it is simply plain old white flour.
Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are commonly used as preservatives and color fixers in processed meat. Without these preservatives, processed meats aren’t exactly health foods, but sodium nitrates seem to make them especially dangerous. Studies indicate added nitrates can cause damage to blood vessel walls – the first step in the atherosclerotic process. They may also increase cancer risk. When processed meats are cooked at high temperatures, like when you grill a hot dog or simply enter the acidic environment of your stomach, the added nitrates convert to nitrosamines, a carcenogenic compound. In fact, when changes in meat processing went into effect in the 1920s that reduced the amount of nitrites added to meat, the rate of stomach cancer mortality dramatically declined. My favorite easy to find nitrate-free meats are Applegate Farms and Al Fresco. Even better, we’re lucky to have Caw Caw Creek pork sausages at our local farmer’s market. More expensive, yes, but you’ll eat less!
Artifical sweeteners are a controversial topic and certainly, there is more research that needs to be done. Part of the reason I avoid artificial sweeteners is my personal bias towards unprocessed foods, but there is also solid research showing artifical sweeteners may not be the calorie-free wonder they are chalked up to be. Although many of the health risks you hear about are exaggerated from small or poorly designed studies, one thing is for certain – unless you are morbidly obese, artifical sweeteners will not help you lose weight. Some theories suggest sweeteners may trigger sweet cravings. Others feel it is the sweetener itself that causes weight gain. Frankly, no one really knows why calorie-free sweeteners are associated with weight gain. But if it doesn’t help control weight, well, wasn’t that the whole point of them in the first place??
Partially hydrogenated oil
This one’s a biggie. Partially hydrogenated oil, or trans fat, is an artificial fat used to keep food shelf stable. It is made by hydrogenating (adding hydrogen) to liquid vegetable oils. This process turns it into an incredibly dangerous chemical. Trans fat increases bad cholesterol AND decreases good cholesterol. If that wasn’t bad enough, trans fats are also one of the most inflammatory food substances. And that’s not all folks. When solid trans fats are incorporated into your blood vessels, it causes them to become more solid, increasing the risk of heart attack or stroke. Trans fats should be eliminated. Unfortunately, the food label can be misleading, and many people unknowingly eat foods containing trans fat. On the food label, nutrients can be rounded up or down from .5 grams. The practice doesn’t really matter for other nutrients, like carbohydrates, protein and total fat, but in the case of trans fats, even .5 grams can be dangerous to health. Legally, a food can be called “trans fat free” or list 0 grams trans fat and still contain up to .49 grams. If you eat more than one serving or more than one supposedly “trans fat free” food in a day, you may be getting much more than you realize. Instead of looking at the nutrition facts for trans fats, look for partially hydrogenated oil on the ingredients list.
High fructose corn syrup
Another controversial one. Chemically, it is almost the same as table sugar, but is it worse than sugar? Honestly, I’m not sure. Some studies indicate it may be. Other studies show it is the same as sugar – just as bad, or no worse. Unfortunately, much of the published research is heavily funded by the surprisingly powerful corn industry, so it’s not exactly unbiased. Either way, I’ve yet to see a food that would otherwise be healthy if it wasn’t for corn syrup! High fructose corn syrup is an easy name to remember, and a good sign that a food is processed to an unhealthy degree. Keep in mind, this does not mean that sugar is a healthy substitute. Any type of sweetener should be used in moderation. But personally, I’d rather stick with the devil I know.
Various food dyes have been linked to cancer, hyperactivity, allergies, and learning problems. Europe has banned 6 different artificial food colors, 4 of which are still available in the US. Frankly, I can’t keep them all straight, so I avoid all synthetic food colors. Again, any food that has been dyed an unnatural color probably isn’t good for you anyhow, so it’s unlikely you’re missing out on anything by eliminating these foods from your diet.
A commonly used preservative. By itself, the preservative appears safe, but it has not been studied in foods that combine potassium benzoate with vitamin C, as in many beverages and canned sweets. This combination forms a substance called benzene, a known carcinogen. Potassium benzoate is most commonly found in sodas, but is also in pickles, margarine, jams and jellies, and various canned goods.
Bottom line: The closer a food is to how it was found in nature, the better it is for you!