Although we don’t think of food as poison, many of the common ingredients in processed food products are actually considered toxic to health. We uncover eight dangerous ingredients to watch out for in your groceries, as well as tips and strategies for how to avoid them.
High fructose corn syrup
Where it’s found: many sweetened products, such as sodas, fruit-flavored drinks, cereals, crackers, breads, flavored yogurts, etc.
Why it’s bad: High fructose corn syrup is chemically similar to table sugar, which has been associated with health problems such as weight gain and obesity, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, and high triglyceride levels when consumed in large quantities.
How to avoid it: High fructose corn syrup is found in nearly all processed foods, so be vigilant about reading labels and seek out natural alternatives.
Artificial sweeteners (aspartame, saccharin, sucralose, etc.)
Where they’re found: artificial sweeteners such as NutraSweet, Equal, Sweet’N Low, and Splenda; also diet sodas and many other processed foods and beverages
Why they’re bad: The FDA has received thousands of aspartame-related complaints involving neurological issues such as dizziness, headaches, and memory loss. Multiple types of artificial sweeteners are suspected carcinogens.
How to avoid them: Don’t buy artificial sweeteners or diet soda, and carefully read the nutrition labels of any processed food or beverage before buying it.
MSG (monosodium glutamate)
Where it’s found: chips, cookies, salad dressings, canned soups, lunch meats, restaurant food (especially Chinese)
Why it’s bad: As an excitotoxin, MSG affects neurological pathways in the brain by over-exciting neurons to the point of harm. When consumed in large amounts, MSG can lead to depression, disorientation, eye damage, fatigue, headaches, and obesity.
How to avoid it: Watch out for savory foods in both grocery stores and restaurants, as MSG is a popular flavor enhancer.
Sodium nitrites and nitrates
Where they’re found: bacon, ham, lunch meat, corned beef, hot dog, jerky, smoked fish or any other type of processed meat
Why they’re bad: While nitrites can help prevent botulism and keep meats from spoiling, they may also cause gastric cancer in organs such as the liver and pancreas.
How to avoid them: Try not to buy pre-packaged meats, and if you do be sure not to overcook them — when sodium nitrite is overcooked, it forms a known carcinogenic compound called nitrosamine.
Trans fat (partially hydrogenated oils)
Where it’s found: margarine, chips and crackers, baked goods, fast foods
Why it’s bad: Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol levels and lower good (HDL) cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
How to avoid it: The American Heart Association recommends getting less than 1% of your total daily calories from trans fats, which leaves essentially no room for processed trans fats.
BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene)
Where they’re found: cereals, crackers, chewing gum, potato chips, vegetable oils, beer, and many foods that contain preservatives
Why they’re bad: Both BHA and BHT have been proven to cause cancer in animals, and The Department of Health and Human Services says that BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.”
How to avoid them: BHA and BHT are common preservatives, so avoid anything artificial with a long shelf life and try fresh foods instead.
Artificial food dyes (such as allura red, erythrosine, and tartrazine)
Where they’re found: One of the most commonly used additives in the US, it’s hard to find a processed product food dyes haven’t been added to.
Why they’re bad: While extremely common, artificial food dyes have been linked to a number of problems, including cancers in various organs and hyperactivity and concentration issues in children. Certain colors have even been banned in other countries, but not in the US.
How to avoid them: Look for labels that say “no artificial coloring used” or have similar proclamations.
Sodium benzoate and potassium benzoate
Where they’re found: pickles, salad dressings, fruit juices, soft drinks, syrups, jams
Why they’re bad: Benzoates preservatives keep bacteria, mold, and yeast from growing in acidic environments. However, sodium and potassium benzoate can react with ascorbic acid (Vitamin C) to form benzene, a known carcinogen.
How to avoid them: Be wary of artificially preserved liquids like syrup that don’t needs to be refrigerated at first, as well as foods preserved in liquid such as pickles, olives, and fruits.