Unfortunately, reading food labels can be like reading Egyptian hieroglyphics. Many of our food ingredient lists are full of words we can’t pronounce or understand. Not to mention there are multiple ways to write the same ingredient; for example, sugar alcohols can be labeled as sorbitol, mannitol, xylitol, isomalt, or hydrogenated starch hydrolysates. How confusing!
Thankfully, there are apps available to simplify the process. One of my favorites is Fooducate. This app focuses on the QUALITY of our food, not the QUANTITY. It gives each food item a score of A-F and explains why each food scored the way it did. When grocery shopping, if I am ever unsure of the food product, I scan the barcode on Fooducate to learn more.
In functional and integrative medicine, we understand the impact food has on our health and wellbeing. Certain food additives can trigger an inflammatory process in our body, leading to physical symptoms and diseases such as brain fog, mood changes, joint pain, headaches, ADD/ADHD, digestive issues, autoimmune disease, and obesity. It is also important to understand that not everybody has the same food allergies and intolerances. It is important to work with a Functional or Integrative practitioner to determine what specific foods you need to avoid or limit.
Here is a list of foods that you should avoid, and foods that may be okay in moderation.
5 Food Ingredients to Avoid
Ingredient #1: Artificial Dyes
Specifically, Red #40, also known as Allura red, is one of the most common artificial dyes in America. Unlike some of the other red dyes that are made from cochineal insects (yuck!), red 40 is made from petroleum distillates or coal tars. This dye has been shown to cause hyperactivity in children and some experts are starting to think it may be linked to certain cancers (in animal studies). Although red #40 is legal in the US, other countries such as the EU have banned these potentially harmful ingredients. Instead, use natural red dye derived from beets.
Ingredient: #2 Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA)
This preservative is used in processed foods to prevent it from spoiling and is probably one of the most toxic foods in this list. This preservative has made it on the EU’s list of potential “endocrine disruptors” meaning it will likely cause hormonal imbalances. It has also been linked to stomach cancer in rats. This ingredient needs to be avoided!
Ingredient #3 Sodium Tripolyphosphate
This ingredient is often found in seafood to help it stay fresh, and can also be found in cleaning products. It has been placed in the “Generally Regarded As Safe” classification. The EU, Canada, and Brazil all have limits on the total amount of sodium tripolyphosphate that can be added to seafood; however the US does not. If that isn’t bad enough, the US does not require seafood manufacturers to put sodium tripolyphosphate on the label. When not in food, this ingredient is a pesticide and is harmful to our health (especially when inhaled).
Ingredient #4 Sodium Benzoate And Potassium Benzoate
Yet, another preservative on the list that is often added to soda, fruit juice, salad dressings, and vinegars to prevent mold from growing. When sodium benzoate was combined with ascorbic acid or vitamin C it caused a carcinogenic chemical called benzene, which has been linked to cancers.
Ingredient #5: Carrageenan
Often found in milk, milk alternatives, and yogurt, carrageenan is derived from a type of red seaweed. It may sound innocent, but this additive has been linked to insulin resistance and cancer in animal studies. I would especially stay away from this one if you suffer from irritable bowel syndrome or inflammatory bowel syndrome.
5 Food Ingredients That May Be Okay in Moderation
Ingredient #1 Maltodextrin
This is a polysaccharide or a type of carbohydrate that is commonly added to food to help thicken it. This ingredient is often made from genetically processed corn. If you purchase organic and non-GMO food products, small quantities of maltodextrin may not cause a problem. However, if you have a gluten intolerance, there is a chance for cross contamination so watch for symptoms such as abdominal pain, gas, bloating, and allergies. Healthier alternatives include pectin or guar gum if you have the option.
Ingredient #2: Safflower and Sunflower Oils
These are definitely healthier oils in comparison to corn and soy because they are not as often genetically modified. Safflower and sunflower oil are often found in healthier snack alternatives such as veggie chips. However, they are high in omega 6’s and often consumed in large quantities. On occasion, these oils are safe, just remember moderation.
Ingredient #3: Cellulose
Cellulose is a common food additive because it is affordable and it adds fiber. It is often made from cotton or wood, but you can find it made from other plant fibers. It’s found in a variety of foods including, cheese, ice cream, breads, milk, etc. In moderation this will not cause any harm to your body, however it is tough to digest. If you are eating large quantities, you may notice an upset stomach or gas. Purchase whole foods or make your own breads and shredded cheese to avoid this ingredient in excess.
Ingredient #4: Cane Sugar
Organic cane sugar is definitely a healthier alternative to high fructose corn syrup; however, sugar is sugar. With our country’s growing obesity epidemic, all forms of sugar need to be limited. Use with moderation!
Ingredient #5 Xanthan Gum
This is a very common ingredient in gluten-free baking. In animal studies, the results were very positive. It was not shown to cause hormonal imbalances or cancer, finally! However, over time the group of rats consuming xanthan gum developed softer stool. In larger quantities, xanthan gum can have a laxative effect increasing stool frequency and gas. So if you already suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms, you may want to limit this additive.
The biggest take away from all of this is to be aware of what you are eating. If you look at an ingredient list and have no idea what it is saying, chances are your body has no idea what it is either. When in doubt, always choose whole foods. Eat plenty of vegetables, fruits, locally sourced meats, eggs, and healthy fats.
Kristin Oja, DNP, FNP, PT-C
|Kristin Corbin Oja, recently having completed her doctorate of nursing practice, is a board-certified family nurse practitioner, registered nurse, personal trainer, and group fitness instructor.|
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