Forbes Magazine recently reported that 60% of the calories in the typical American diet come from ultra-processed foods. These ultra-processed foods contain ingredients not used in natural food preparation (i.e.: your kitchen!) These unnatural ingredients also:
- Act as preservatives (That packaged muffin won’t get moldy for months!)
- Add “desirable” colors or flavor elements (Blue cereal, anyone?)
- Provide texture intended to mimic freshly prepared food (Think “soft-baked” cookies.)
Today, we’ll focus on five ingredients commonly found in ultra-processed foods and discuss why you should avoid them.
Partially hydrogenated oils:
Also known as shortening or palm oil, these trans fats are artery cloggers! They raise your “bad” cholesterol (LDL) and lower your “good” cholesterol (HDL.) The FDA no longer recognizes them as safe for consumption, and has given food manufacturers 3 years to remove them from their products. Trans fats are still found in many packaged baked goods, margarine, and refrigerated dough, and should be avoided. If a product states “trans-fat-free,” check the ingredient list for partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which indicates trace amounts of trans fats. (Products with less than 0.5 grams per serving are allowed to be labeled trans-fat-free.)
Artificial food dyes:
We know that food coloring has been linked to increased hyperactivity in some children, but recent consumer advocate and scientific research has also linked them to cancer in animals. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has deemed food coloring safe, but how and in which products it’s used is strictly regulated and reviewed on an ongoing basis. Many products are replacing artificial dyes with natural colors derived from vegetables (such as beets) and spices (such as turmeric.) We think this is a great change!
This stuff in in everything. (Slight exaggeration, but in addition to fast food and take-out Chinese, MSG can be found in many potato chips, cold cuts, salty snacks, even chicken and beef broth.) People with sensitivity to MSG may experience headaches, upset stomach, a rapid heartbeat, or in some cases, numbing or tingling in the face, neck, or extremities. Scary stuff. MSG may be hiding in ingredients lists as hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, glutamic acid and yeast extract, so read carefully!
High fructose corn syrup:
This sweetener is cheaper than table sugar and absorbed more quickly by the body. Studies have shown it can increase triglycerides (fat found in the blood) and is more difficult for the body to process. High consumption of high fructose corn syrup has been linked to obesity, insulin resistance, high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. If you see it on the label, you may want to make another choice.
Aspartame, sucralose, saccharin and sugar alcohols are all types of artificial sweeteners. Like food coloring, artificial sweeteners and sugar alcohols are still considered safe by the FDA, however many people have reported side effects like headaches and nausea after consumption. These sweeteners are not completely absorbed by the body, and can also have a laxative effect when eaten in certain quantities (sometimes as low as 10 grams.) Stick with natural sweeteners like honey, molasses, fruit nectars and maple syrup. (But even natural sweeteners should be limited.)
How can you avoid these ingredients?
- Read labels: Don’t rely on claims like “trans-fat-free” on the front of the box. Understand which ingredients can be harmful and look for them in the ingredients list.
- Retrain your taste buds: Craving something sweet? Try a piece of fruit, or a small (1-inch) square of dark chocolate. Many people find when they really curb their sugar intake that the need to “satisfy the sweet tooth” fades away.
- Eat as close to nature as possible. Skip the pre-packaged protein bar and grab a handful of all-natural, unsalted almonds, an all-natural smoothie, or hard-boiled egg for an easy, filling on-the-go snack.
Do you have any other tips for avoiding processed foods? What are some of your favorite healthy, all-natural snacks? Speak up in the comments!