If you’ve ever tried to “clean up” your eating habits and eat less processed foods, you have probably found that it’s not only really hard to do, but that most of the foods in the American grocery store and diet are processed and full of artificial ingredients. These ingredients not only have a negative impact on our physical health, but can damage our mental health as well. Now, processed foods are hard to avoid, and can be a part of one’s diet in small amounts, but here are some especially harmful ingredients you want to watch out for and avoid:
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High fructose corn syrup (HFCS), or corn sugar, has gotten a lot of media attention over the past few years. This sugar-in-disguise starts out as cornstarch and then is converted to liquid syrup by the use of enzymes and acids in a food science lab. Because it is cheaper than real sugar, food manufacturers have opted to use it as an additive to sweeten their food. It is in a huge amount of processed, packaged foods, and incredibly hard to avoid if you’re shopping boxed and packaged foods in the middle isles of the grocery store. Some potential effects of high fructose consumption include non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, obesity, digestive distress, increased levels of triglycerides and increased risk to developing Type II diabetes or metabolic syndrome, amongst other issues including an increased risk of depression.
Trans Fats (hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils)
Trans fat first showed face over 100 years ago as the very first ‘man-made’ fat in our food. Trans fats are created by taking a vegetable oil (soybean, cottonseed, etc.) and putting it through a process called hydrogenation, which adds hydrogen to the liquid oil, turning it into an artificial, solid food ingredient. By doing this, the fat becomes a preservative, making processed foods last longer, as well as giving them a more irresistible taste and texture. These foods are your typical highly processed convenience foods, including stick margarine, peanut butter, baked goods, microwave popcorn and fried restaurant foods. Studies have linked them to raising LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowering HDL (good) cholesterol, as well as increasing risks for obesity, Type II diabetes, premature heart attacks and even cancer. Make sure you check for it in the ingredient list first, versus looking at the Nutrition Facts panel. Food companies are allowed to sneak it in the food in smaller amounts, yet claim “trans fat free” or “zero grams trans fat” on the label if less than 0.5g/serving.
Artificial preservatives are a group of chemicals that are added to foods to make them last longer. For centuries, canning, freezing or even drying have been methods for reducing the spoilage of food from bacteria and/or mold. Some natural food additives, such as olive oil, salt, or even vinegar were used to help keep food longer. Now if you look at typical American diet, we find artificial preservatives in countless foods. Preservatives increase shelf life and are cheaper than traditional preservation methods, meaning more profit for the companies. These synthetic food additives have been linked to hyperactivity, cancer tumors, skin and eye irritation and asthmatic problems. On the label, look for and avoid foods that have any of the following: nitrites, nitrates, benzoates, sorbates, propionates, sulfites, BHA, and BHT.
Consumers should know that the farming of animals has drastically changed over the last century. No longer able to graze the land and act like animals, conventional farming confines and crams them into feedlots, often feeding them a non-traditional diet of corn, soy and grains. Because of these close quarters, disease spreads rapidly and increases a need for antibiotics to be given to the animals to help survive (these antibiotics can strip your gut of the healthy, natural flora needed to keep your digestive tract healthy). The animals are also given hormones to encourage rapid growth to keep up with demand. Long-term studies have not been completed on the effects of adding hormones and antibiotics to animals, but hormonal imbalances in humans are becoming more common as well as overexposure and resistance to antibiotics. When you choose meats without added hormones or antibiotics, you not only decrease your exposure to consuming those byproducts, but you are supporting the humane and ethical treatment of the animal. Look for beef, chicken and eggs marked as grass fed, pasture raised or cage free with the statement of no antibiotics or hormone added on the label. Watch out for rBGH, a growth hormone given to cows to increase lactation and milk production.
Bleached, white refined wheat flour is found in SO many foods in America. It’s pretty much the staple of the typical American diet. Bleaching agents (such as chlorine gas or benzoyl peroxide) provide a shortcut to aging and whitening fresh milled flour. What’s the problem? Well, bleaching agents alone can be highly irritating to our bodies, not to mention, lethal and dangerous to inhale. There is also a controversial byproduct, called alloxan, which is created from the bleaching process and can be left in the flour. Scientists consider alloxan a toxin and use it to produce diabetes in laboratory animals. Bleached flour is typically found in starchier foods, such as breads, bakery items, pizza crusts and crackers. Check the ingredient list, and if it contains bleached flour, benzoyl peroxide or chlorine, put the food back on the shelf.
Coloring is added to improve the look and appeal of a food. This can be done naturally with pigments from food, such as using the orange color of a sweet potato or the red of a beet. Yet many food companies utilize synthetic chemicals to do so. Most are found in foods with no nutritional value (candy, desserts, soda, chips, etc.); artificial colors can show up in many other foods like cereals, canned fruit, yogurts or even low-quality multivitamins! So what’s wrong with artificial colors? Well they’ve been linked to causing hyperactivity in children as well as increasing risk for tumors, cancer, and allergy-like reactions in humans. To avoid, check the ingredient list for the most commonly used colors: Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Red 3, Blue 1, Blue 2, Orange B, Citrus Red 2 and Green 3.
Sugar is more readily available in our diet than ever before. In fact, the average American consumes between 90 and 180 pounds of sugar per year. What’s astonishing is that a century ago, we were consuming less than one pound. America definitely has a sweet tooth and food companies know it, often adding the cheap, addictive ingredient to many foods that naturally would have none. But our high intake of sugar is rapidly leading to related health problems, like diabetes and obesity, as well as depression and anxiety. To prevent this, avoid buying foods with added sugar at all costs. Not only avoiding sweet foods, such as candy, soda and bakery items, but check the ingredient list of any other processed food you’d typically put in your shopping cart, even sauces, dressings, condiments, juice, crackers, etc. Also know that sugar has many disguises on the label, including agave nectar, fructose syrup, evaporated cane sugar or even juice concentrate, to just name a few!
Despite the fact that these ingredients are often harmful to our mental health, they are still loaded in our grocery store foods. Many times, when food companies use one of these ingredients, the others are right along with it, in the ingredient list. But the only way you’ll know is by reading the ingredient list of each food. Be a smart shopper and stick to a foundation of whole natural foods as much as possible. If and when some processed or packaged foods end up in your cart, be sure they don’t include any of the above!