Modified-this, hydrogenated-that. There are a number of potentially harmful chemicals and ingredients that manufacturers put in our food products (an estimated 2,000 to be exact). We touch on some of the most common here, but remember, if it’s on the label and it’s not a food product, put it back and choose something else.
Artificial sweeteners, also known as synthetic sugar substitutes, have been around since the late 1800’s but became more popular in the early to mid 1900’s as a way to avoid excess calories from traditional sugar. Artificial sweeteners are often many times sweeter than sugar, meaning manufacturers can use less, making them a cheaper alternative to natural sugar. They are widely used in processed foods such as soda, baked goods, candy, condiments, dairy products, bread, cereals, and anything labeled as “sugar-free”.
An immediate red flag is the use of the word “Artificial”, meaning these products are man-made. When deciding what foods to use to fuel our bodies, anything with the word artificial should be avoided. Some studies have pointed towards evidence that overconsumption of artificial sweeteners can lead to increased weight gain, metabolic syndrome, type 2 diabetes, and even cancer. One study also found that artificial sweeteners can interfere with basic learning processes and can diminish the release of certain hormones that tell our body when it’s full, leading to overeating. The same study also found they can alter gut microbiome (do some research on our gut microbiome and learn it controls EVERYTHING in our bodies).
Artificial colors are used in a number of packaged food products, many of which are listed above. Manufacturers put food dye in products to make packaged foods more appealing. Many canned pickles, for example, have green food dye added to make them…more green? Again, we have the word “Artificial” present telling us these products are man-made, aka stay away. Artificial colors are most often made from petroleum, which is also used to make transportation fuels, asphalt and plastics. Yummy?
Despite being approved by the FDA for use in foods, many health concerns have been raised from the use of artificial colors. Several studies have found there is a link between food dyes and hyperactivity, including ADHD. Another review found that Red 3 may cause cancer and several others contain carcinogens. One additional article discusses the possibility that food coloring can cause inflammation and have disastrous affects on our immune systems.
Artificial flavors are synthetic compounds that are created in a lab to mimic the flavor of naturally occurring substances. Natural flavors, according to the FDA, are derive from spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof. When creating artificial flavors, manufacturers recreate the chemical make-up of the natural flavor, making the artificial flavor almost chemically identical, however man-made.
There isn’t a lot of evidence to support artificial flavors having a negative impact on our health. They are, however, often found in low quality packaged foods that should be avoided in the first place. To be on the safe side, I personally steer away from anything with artificial ingredients.
Hydrogenated oil is created by adding hydrogen gas to refined oil. The heat and pressure cause carbons in the oil to form new chemical bonds with the hydrogen, resulting in solidified oil. Why is this potentially harmful? As this process is continued, you are left with saturated fat, which leads to increased cholesterol levels and ultimately heart disease. Partially hydrogenated oils are trans fats and thankfully were banned by the FDA in 2018.
Since they are cheaper and easier to produce, hydrogenated oils are commonly found in processed food. When reading your food labels, avoid these saturated fats and look instead for healthy oils such as olive oil, flaxseed oil, sunflower oil or avocado oil.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
Similar to the artificial sweeteners discussed earlier, high fructose syrup is popular with food and beverage manufacturers because it is a cheap alternative to real sugar. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is made from corn starch. The corn starch is broken down in to 100% glucose (a simple sugar) molecules, also known as corn syrup. Enzymes are then added to convert some of the glucose into fructose, another simple sugar. High fructose corn syrup gets it’s name from it’s high fructose content, which can be up to 55% of the composition. The remainder is glucose and water.
Negative health impacts resulting from high fructose corn syrup may include liver cancer, cirrhosis and cardiovascular disease. Another study found that HFCS can lead to an increased risk of developing intestinal cancer. Beverages high in uric acid caused by fructose can lead to joint diseases such as gout. Consuming sugary beverages that use HFCS often times leads to diabetes. HFCS is also linked to increasing obesity rates due, in part, to the large number of packaged and processed foods that use it.
The best thing to do to avoid potentially harmful chemicals and live a healthy life? Eat Real Food. By following some of the best practices we learned in What Should We Eat? and reading food labels like we learned in How to Read a Nutrition Facts Label we are more likely to purchase foods without these questionable ingredients.
As a reminder – I am not a doctor. If you have special dietary needs or would like to discuss a plan specific to you, please consult your physician.