If a food is low in calories and fat – it’s healthy right? Well, not so fast. Some foods that we’ve deemed the healthiest, like yogurt and cereal, actually contain ingredients that have been proven to adversely affect our health. Keep reading to learn about five ingredients you should try to avoid during your next trip to the grocery store.
1. “Enriched” Ingredients
We all know that eating plenty of whole grains, such as whole wheat bread and brown rice, is a surefire way to maintaining a healthy diet. But, as food processing has advanced, more manufacturers have begun to “refine” and “enrich” grains to increase a product’s shelf life. As a result, this technique ultimately removes numerous natural vitamins and minerals.
“An enriched grain means a food that is naturally nutrient rich was processed in a way that stripped it of its nutrients, then some were added back, which will not offer the same benefits as the whole, intact grain,” said Cynthia Sass, registered dietician and author of Cinch! Conquer Cravings, Drop Pounds and Lose Inches.
To make sure you’re getting the most out of what you eat, check the list of ingredients on packaged foods to see if the first ingredient begins with the word “whole” such as “whole wheat flour”. This indicates that the product is made primarily from whole grains, according to the National Institutes of Health.
2. Hydrogenated Oil
In another effort to increase shelf life, manufacturers also use hydrogenated oils in commercial goods like crackers, peanut butter, cookies and cakes. And while this process may benefit food companies, studies have proven it can increase your risk for obesity and various other conditions.
“Trans fat is made by adding hydrogen to vegetable oil through a process called hydrogenation,” according to the Mayo Clinic. “Scientists aren't sure exactly why, but the addition of hydrogen to oil increases your cholesterol more than other types of fats.”
While it is true that goods with “fully hydrogenated oils” contain no trans fat, Sass explained that doesn’t mean they are risk-free.
“A Brandeis University study found that eating products made with ‘interesterified’ oil (a.k.a. fully hydrogenated oil) may lower HDL, the good cholesterol, and cause a significant rise in blood sugar,” she said. “That’s why the best way to avoid both partially and fully hydrogenated oils is to eat unprocessed or minimally processed foods.”
3. High Fructose Corn Syrup
Found in everything from soda to cookies and salad dressing, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS) has become a major part of the American diet.
And while research on HFCS’s possible health effects have been extensive, results have varied. As a man-made substance, and one that is not naturally present in foods, many nutritionists have begun to speculate on whether or not it should be a component of our diet.
“Because it’s found in so many foods, humans have never consumed this much fructose before,” Sass said. “And many experts believe this trend is linked to kidney and liver disease, high blood pressure, and inflammation, a known trigger of premature aging and disease.”
4. Artificial Sweeteners
Promising to offer the same sweetness as sugar – but with fewer calories – artificial sweeteners have become attractive substitutes, and are now found in a variety of “sugar-free” or “diet” foods and beverages.
But how much of this “fake sugar” should you really be consuming?
“In terms of safety, the government has set an Acceptable Daily Intake, or ADI, the level that a person can safely consume every day over a lifetime without the risk of developing serious side effects,” Sass explained. “ADI is determined by toxicity studies, mostly in animals, and the amounts are pretty high, but my philosophy is how did our culture even get to a place where we have created artificial sugar that requires toxicology tests?”
If you simply can’t live without your Splenda or NutraSweet, be sure to only consume these sweeteners in moderation.
5. Sodium Nitrate
In order to stabilize the red color in cured meat and give it its characteristic flavor, many meat manufactures have been adding sodium nitrate to bacon, ham, hot dogs, salami and other luncheon meats. But recent research has shown that the addition of preservatives to meat ultimately increases your cancer risk.
“When meat is preserved by smoking, curing or salting, or by the addition of preservatives, cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) can be formed,” according to the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR). “These substances can damage cells in the body, leading to the development of cancer.”
Despite these findings, the meat industry continues to justify its use of sodium nitrate, claiming that the ingredient prevents the growth of bacteria.
The AICR recommends avoiding processed meats and limiting your consumption of red meats, like beef, pork and lamb, to no more than 18 ounces per week.
“An ingredient list should read like a recipe you can recreate in your own kitchen, not like a science experiment,” Sass said. “If it contains words you don’t recognize there’s probably a better, all-natural option.”