Do you know what's in your foods? Label reading is key for healthy eating, and we believe in it so much we made it a key part of our books, Unjunk Your Junk Food (Gallery Books) and Label Lessons: Your Guide to a Healthy Shopping Cart. If you're just starting to read labels, we want to make it easy for you to recognize the worst of the worst offenders. Over the course of the three years it took us to write our books, we identified a group of seven ingredients we know cause harm to our bodies. We called them: "THE SCARY SEVEN™."
1. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is a concentrated and inexpensive sugar substitute made from yellow dent corn. It's used to sweeten beverages, including soft drinks, and according to the American Heart Association, these liquid calories are more likely to lead to weight gain as compared to calories from solid foods. In fact, HFCS goes right to your liver where it's converted to fat, increasing your risk of heart disease. HFCS is definitely one of the worst ingredients you can find in your junk food.
2. Trans Fat
Each day Americans ingest an average of 5.8 grams of trans fat–also referred to as partially hydrogenated oils. Vegetable oils are hydrogenated to transform them from a liquid to a solid fat, which is done to create a desired consistency and to increase the shelf life of foods. But trans fat raises your triglyceride and low density lipoprotein (LDL, the bad cholesterol) levels, which not only increases your risk of heart attack, but has been linked to prostate cancer, breast cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes and obesity. Indeed, it's estimated that trans fats cause at least 30,000 deaths each year. Even if you already check labels for "trans fat," you could be ingesting small amounts in your foods because the FDA allows food manufacturers to state "0 trans fat" on labels if the food contains less than 0.5 grams trans fat per serving. Read the ingredients list and if you see "partially hydrogenated," you'll know it does, in fact, contain trans fat.
3. Artificial Flavors
When you see "artificial flavors" on a food label, it could mean a single unnatural additive or a blend of hundreds of chemicals. Strawberry flavor, for example, contains 49 chemical ingredients. Other worst offenders in this category include artificial raspberry flavor and artificial butter flavor (found in popcorn). And with so many delicious naturally flavored foods out there, why reach for something loaded with artificial ingredients?
Third on our worst ingredients list is monosodium glutamate, or MSG, which is an artificial flavor found in thousands of processed foods, from fast food to chips to soup. While the FDA has classified MSG as "generally recognized as safe," there have been numerous consumer complaints related to adverse reactions to foods containing MSG, including swelling, facial numbness, heart palpitations, nausea and weakness. The good news? There are lots of MSG-free alternatives out there to choose from, so you can still enjoy your favourite foods simply by choosing brands that don't contain this additive.
5. Artificial Colors
Found in everything from cereals to cosmetics, candy to pharmaceutical drugs, artificial colours make things look pretty, but they're deceptive. Pediatricians and parents have long complained about artificial colours in foods, and recent studies support anecdotal evidence that artificial dyes affect children's behavior. Most artificial dyes have been linked to hyperactivity, attention deficit disorder (ADD) and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), and two studies have found that artificial dyes affect the behavior of children without behavioral disorders.
6. Artificial Sweeteners
While sugar is to be avoided, many of the artificial sweeteners on the market are about as bad for you. Acesulfame potassium (also known as ace K and sold under the brand names Sunett and Sweet One) is a calorie-free sweetener, and while early studies indicated it may cause cancer in animals, little research has been done since it was approved in 1988. Aspartame, the sweetener in Equal and NutraSweet, is found in more than 5,000 products. The body converts aspartame to formaldehyde, a carcinogen that's used in embalming and to treat lumber. Aspartame has been linked to numerous adverse effects, including headaches, dizziness, mood changes, convulsions and memory loss, and the FDA has received more complaints related to aspartame than any other food additive. Neotame is chemically similar to aspartame, but there have been no long-term studies to ensure its safety. Saccharin, in Sweet'N Low, was the first commercial artificial sweetener, and it's been shown to cause cancer in animals and is a suspected human carcinogen. Finally, Sucralose, sold under the name Splenda, is 600 times sweeter than sugar, and a study out of Duke University showed it reduced the healthy bacteria in the intestines of male rats by 50 percent.
Prepared foods are packed with preservatives to elongate their shelf life. But these chemicals can have a detrimental effect on your health, and many are allergens and/or possible carcinogens. BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) have been known to affect kidney and liver function, and they're considered a possible carcinogen. Polysorbate 60, 65 and 80 have been shown to affect the immune system and have caused severe anaphylactic shock–a potentially lethal allergic reaction. Several studies have also linked polysorbate 80 to infertility. Sodium benzoate is also linked to allergic reactions and is a carcinogen. Sulfites, a type of preservative used in dried fruit, wine, flavored vinegars, sausages and other foods, are common allergens and have been linked to headaches, bowel irritability, behavioral problems and rashes. Asthmatics need to be particularly careful about sulfites as they can cause a sudden constriction of the airways. TBHQ (tertiary butylhyroquinone), a petroleum-based food additive, has been associated with nausea, vomiting and tinnitus, and it has been linked to cancer. Lastly, nitrates, used to cure meats, combine with stomach acids to produce nitrosamines, which have been linked to cancer.