It’s tough to eat well these days. If you’re going the organic route, you already know it’s going to be a little more expensive. And if you’re trying to find healthy and nutritious choices among your packaged foods, you may be getting more fillers, chemicals and additives than you bargained for.
Most of us would agree that fast food isn’t really that good for us, but in 2016, the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health confirmed that eating fast food could expose you to high levels of phthalates, potentially harmful industrial chemicals found in food packaging. And speaking of food packaging, the synthetic chemicals used in the packaging, storing and processing of food might harm human health over the long term, according to a warning from environmental scientists published in Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health in 2014.
“A lot of these can be easily avoided by either eating organic or reading the labels of the foods we buy. Packaged food is notorious for containing artificial flavors, colors, dyes and enriched wheat products. By switching to a more whole food way of eating, you can be sure to lessen the preservatives and additives in your diet,” Kristi Acuna, holistic nutritionist, says.
You are what you eat, and if you want to look and feel like your best self, here are some of the worst food additives to avoid.
1. Ammonium sulfate
We clean with dangerous chemicals like ammonia, but you might not be pleased to find ammonium sulfate used as a preservative in your bread. Manufacturers claim it’s safe at low levels, and yet, this is also an ingredient you’ll find in garden fertilizer.
2. Artificial sweeteners
Swapping out the sweet stuff for sugar substitutes may seem like a good move if you’re trying to lose weight and reduce the risk of chronic disease, but a major culprit in the overweight and obesity epidemic is also unhealthy artificial ingredients. The body doesn’t excrete an artificial sweetener like aspartame in the same way it does other sweeteners. And Acuna lists aspartame among her top food additives to avoid, explaining that it can eventually pose harm to the body by blocking the absorption and utilization of the real vitamins and minerals the body needs to function at optimal level.
3. Butylated hydroxyanisole
BHA is another sketchy food ingredient that you’re bound to see everywhere. This phenol-based food preservative prevents food from going rancid, working as an antioxidant, but it definitely doesn’t have the same protective effect on your body. BHA is “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
4. Food colorings
Your gut instinct was right all along. A food ingredient that has “red” or “yellow” in the name is probably not that good for you or your kids. Red Dye No. 3 was even banned by the FDA in 1990 because of a cancer-causing link. “Many parents know that these food dyes have been linked to hyperactive children. What you may not know is that studies also link them to cancer, depression and other mental health problems. At the end of the day, they are an unnatural chemical added to our food,” Michael Joseph, the nutrition educator at Nutrition Advance, says.
5. High-fructose corn syrup
No matter how hard you try, high-fructose corn syrup is going to be hard to avoid. HFCS, commonly found in a number of salad dressings, soft drinks and processed foods, has been rumored to be highly addictive. High fructose corn syrup has also been linked to weight gain and fatty liver disease.
6. Potassium bromate
This is an additive added to bread to both strengthen the dough and allow for better rising during the baking process, explains Joseph. “Although it is legal for use in the United States, it is banned in many countries around the world. It is also a suspected carcinogen.”
7. Sodium nitrite
Bacon lovers, the outlook for nitrites ain’t so good. Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate are common meat preservatives that provide a red color and help to prevent bacterial growth. As delicious as they are, eating processed meats has been linked to a higher risk of pancreatic cancer.
8. Soybean oil
These days, soybean oil is also pretty hard to avoid — it’s the unhealthy oil you’re going to find throughout the fast-food industry. Joseph says, “Soybean oil has been called more obesogenic and diabetogenic than fructose and has links to both cancer and heart disease in various studies.”
Bonus: MSG — do your homework
Even with the “no MSG” movement, there’s been controversy surrounding this added ingredient for years. A savory food enhancer made from the salt of the amino acid glutamic acid, MSG has some dark and twisty research behind it. It’s considered by some to be highly addictive, with evidence that it may induce obesity. Yet the latest consensus is that MSG is totally fine. As with anything you put into your mouth, this may be another time to do your own research on the widely debated ingredient and decide what works best for you.
Originally published May 2012. Updated September 2016.