Most people are familiar with the nutrition label on packaged food by now. Whether interested in calories, sugar or sodium content, you can easily gather this information with a little know-how. However, for me, the white box labeled “Nutrition Facts” is not my number one concern. Sure, I glance at the sugar content, but you know where else I look? The ingredients. The list of actual ingredients in my mind is severely underrated and critically important to eating healthy. There you’ll find the truth behind what’s really in your food and discover the scary ingredients lurking in your seemingly healthful choices rather than focusing exclusively on claims and calories. In short, I want to teach you to become a label detective.
Marketers are smart. They know what you want to see and what words to put on the package to draw you in. But you don’t have to fall for the madness. By simply reading the ingredient list, you know exactly what you’re getting.
Peanut butter is a perfect example of this. Most people believe that peanut butter is a healthy food to consume. But let’s find out:
The nutrition facts label from one of the leading brands reads: 16g of fat (note: trans fat is listed as 0g), 135mg of sodium, 8g of carbs, 2g of fiber, 3g of sugar, and 7 grams of protein. That looks pretty good, right? Now, let’s look at the ingredients:
Made from roasted peanuts and sugar, contains 2% or less of: molasses, fully hydrogenated vegetable oils (rapeseed and soybean) mono- and diglycerides, salt.
Know what hydrogenated vegetable oil is? Well, I can tell you it’s listed as one of our scariest ingredients below. In short, it’s trans fat. But didn’t the nutrition facts say there was 0g of trans fat? Yes. That’s because according to the FDA, if a product contains 0.5 grams of trans fat or less per serving, it can be labeled as 0g (even though the FDA says on their site: “Selecting foods with even small amounts of trans fat can add up to a significant intake.”) Oh, and I should also mention that mono- and diglycerides (the ingredients that keep peanut butter creamy and sticking together; the oils separate naturally) may also contain trans-fatty acids, but according to Livestrong don’t fall under the 2006 FDA’s labeling requirements of trans fat as it’s an emulsifier and not a lipid.
So, is peanut butter healthy? Well, when you’re adding a side of trans fat, maybe not. BUT, it can be if you look for ones that contain one to two ingredients on the label: peanuts and maybe salt. We love this kind at Get Healthy U!
Here are five of the scariest ingredients the team at Get Healthy U seems to find most commonly on food labels and why you should stay away from them:
1) Added and Artificial Sugar
Let’s face it: we eat way too much sugar in our diets. And manufacturers try to hide the amount of sugar in products by changing the name on the label. In fact, sugar has over 50 alias names. Added sugars (think high fructose corn syrup, sucrose, maltodextrin) are absorbed much more readily in the bloodstream as opposed to eating a piece of fruit where the fructose is accompanied by fiber and leads to a slower absorption. When it comes to sugar, moderation is key. The problem is that when we consume large amounts of sugar daily, our cells become insulin resistant which is a leading instigator of many diseases and of weight gain. And, by the way, if you think artificial sweeteners are the answer, sorry, but you’d be wrong. Although artificial sweeteners may not affect the bloodstream the same way, there are concerns about the long-term safety and, most importantly, you’re teaching your taste buds to constantly crave sweeter foods (the problem you’re trying to avoid in the first place!). Note: naturally occurring sugars in dairy, fruit and veggies are fine—they are NOT the problem.
Most commonly found in: dressings, condiments, bread, canned fruit, baked goods, soda, cereals
2) Hydrogenated Vegetable and/or Soybean Oil
As briefly mentioned above, any time you see fully/partially hydrogenated vegetable/soybean/rapeseed oil, it is safe to assume that the product contains trans fat, even when the label says 0 grams. Though hydrogenated vegetable oils are commonly found in many foods, there have been strong links between the consumption of trans fats to a higher risk of coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes and stroke. In fact, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention writes that “reducing trans fat consumption by avoiding artificial trans fat could prevent 10,000-20,000 heart attacks and 3,000-7,000 coronary heart disease deaths each year in the U.S.” Thankfully, the correlation between trans fats and major health problems gave the FDA enough evidence to propose a ban on the use of trans fats on November 7, 2013 and on June 16, 2015 the FDA banned the use of all artificial trans fat. Unfortunately, we will still see trans fat on shelves until June 18, 2018, as the ban allows three years for companies to adjust their products. And it’s important to stay away from them during this time: even if the label says 1 gram of trans fat, but you’re eating triple the serving size every day, it adds up quick!
Most commonly found in: breads/tortillas, frozen pizza, snack foods, coffee creamer, peanut butter, margarine
Related: The Truth About Healthy Fat
3) Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
What is MSG (often listed as number E620-E625)? Simply put, it is a flavor enhancer used to make food taste and even smell better. It is often associated as being used in Chinese food and some have even coined the phrase “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” referring to the various side effects MSG can have on people including numbness and heart palpitations. In fact, this flavor-enhancing ingredient is considered a neurotoxin, meaning it stimulates nerve cells so much that it causes them to die. It has also been associated with headaches, chest pain, nausea, weakness, obesity, type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome. But just because a label doesn’t say monosodium glutamate on the label doesn’t mean you’re safe, sorry to say. Like sugar, MSG also have a variety of alias names. Get acquainted with the other names that manufacturers use for MSG here. Fun stuff, huh?
Most commonly found in: Chinese food, canned soups, frozen dinners, dressings
4) Artificial Colors
What do red velvet cake, macaroni & cheese, pickles and Life cereal have in common? Yep, artificial colors. Those pretty little bottles you used as a child to dye your Easter eggs aren’t so pretty when you think of the fact that they are made from petroleum and used in mass quantities in your everyday food. The sole purpose of artificial colors is to make things look good; in essence to make our food prettier. Food dyes like Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6 (and many more!) have been linked to hyperactivity in children including behavioral changes and impulsive activity, allergic reactions, fatigue, anxiety and migraines. They are even contaminated with known carcinogens which are involved in causing cancer. I think the thing that kills me about this one is how unnecessary it is. All this so our noodle can look a little more yellow?? I bet you can guess our feelings about artificial flavors as well. (If you’re not ready to give up your mac & cheese, try this brand that contains no artificial colors.) Oh, also interesting to note: the European Union banned many food colors including the ones in McDonald’s Strawberry Sundae in Europe; it’s colored with strawberries, but if you eat one in the U.S., it’s colored with red dye. Why? Because we allow it and it’s cheaper!
Most commonly found in: macaroni and cheese, snack foods, candy, pickles, condiments, cereals
5) Potassium Bromate
Often used to strengthen the flour in dough and help it rise, potassium bromate is a popular food additive used in the U.S. However, research shows that potassium bromate is a possible cancer-causing ingredient and can cause damage to DNA in the human liver and intestinal cells. And according to a new study from the Environmental Working Group, it’s been found in more than 86 baked goods and other food products on the market. Oh, and this one has also been banned in other countries such as Canada, Brazil and the European Union.
Most commonly found in: bread and other baked goods
With a little sleuthing, you can be sure to steer clear of these five scary ingredients. A good rule of thumb I often use is that if I don’t recognize an ingredient and it sounds like something you’d put into the gas tank of a space shuttle, I move on. And hey, fruits and vegetables don’t contain any of these! Funny how that works.
Looking for extra resources? CSPI.net has all sorts of information on foods to avoid along with an app called Chemical Cuisine. Download it onto your phone so you can have it at the ready next time you’re unsure of an ingredient and it will assign it a safety rating. Also, find out about more dangerous food additive to avoid here.