Some of the so-called healthy Christmas foods and packaged goods you’re tossing into your grocery cart this year may be filled with “extras” that can, in the long term, put your families health at risk.
Everyone knows to keep an eye out for calories, fat and carbs when they’re browsing the supermarket aisles, but are you paying attention to the little known, flavor-enhancing, often lab-generated chemicals that manufacturers are pumping into your food to cut costs and keep you hooked? Just because it isn’t making you fat doesn’t mean it’s not rotting you from the inside-out. If you look out for only nine ingredients the next time you go shopping for food, make them these.
PARTIALLY HYDROGENATED OIL
This nemesis of heart health is the primary source of trans fat. Manufacturers like it because it reduces costs, increases shelf life and stabilizes flavor, but it’s a lose-lose for consumers. Trans fats are twice as difficult for the body to dissolve as saturated fats, and because they boost bad (LDL) cholesterol and have been shown to decrease good (HDL) cholesterol, they’re active agents of heart disease, diabetes, nutritional deficiencies and cellular deterioration. Note: Products that contain partially hydrogenated oils, but have less than 0.5g of trans fat per serving can carry a “trans-fat free” label. Also keep in mind that “fully hydrogenated oil” does not contain trans fats. Bottom Line: Avoid foods containing trans fats, including margarine, vegetable shortening, crackers, cookies, baked goods, salad dressings, breads and chips.
Not so sweet after all?
Sucralose (Splenda) Advertised as “natural” because it’s made from sugar, but scientists replace three hydrogen-oxygen molecules with chlorine atoms and change its chemical composition. Saccharin (Sweet’N Low) Made from petroleum. There have been ongoing debates about whether it causes cancer, but the FDA said it was safe in 2010. Aspartame (Equal) A combination of two amino acids—phenylalanine and aspartic acid—hat’s usually found in soft drinks. There have been rumors that it causes everything from brain tumors to Gulf War Syndrome, but the FDA has discounted all of these. Acesulfame-K (Sweet One) Two studies have linked it to cancer in rats.
HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP
Though chemically similar to table sugar (sucrose), this cheaper alternative is a highly processed form of glucose converted into fructose—the type of sugar ordinarily found in fruit. The case against HFCS ranges from claims that it inhibits leptin—the hormone responsible for telling your brain that you’re full—damages tissue and can contain toxic levels of mercury. The arguments against HFCS are inconclusive, but one thing is certain: too much sugar will harm bodily processes in countless ways, including increasing risk for diabetes, obesity and other metabolic disorders.
MSG It goes by many… many names:
monosodium glutamate, maltodextrin, sodium caseinate, autolyzed yeast, autolyzed vegetable protein, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, yeast extract and even citric acid. This leads to a sort of duck-and-cover effect, with more than 40 forms of this processed additive in grocery store aisles. MSG in all of its forms is considered a neurotoxin because it has been shown to damage nerve cells by overexciting them to the point of cell death. MSG is also a chemoinducer of obesity, type II diabetes and metabolic syndrome. Bottom Line: It’s often found in canned soup, diet beverages, an array of popular fast food, packaged sausages and frankfurters, beef stew, instant soups, salad dressing and some packaged vegetarian foods.
BHA (BUTYLATED HYDROXYANISOLE) and BHT (BUTYLATED HYDROXYTOLUENE)
Antioxidants are normally good, right? Not in this case. BHA and BHT are antioxidant preservatives used in cereals, potato chips and chewing gum to keep them from going rancid. The Department of Health and Human Services pegged them as known carcinogens, but, mysteriously, the FDA allows them. The additives negatively impact sleep and appetite, and have been associated with liver and kidney damage, hair loss, behavioral problems, cancer, fetal abnormalities and growth retardation.
SODIUM NITRATE AND SODIUM NITRITE
These additives are used as colorants and to preserve the shelf life of meats like hot dogs, bacon and sausage. That all sounds OK until you note that they mix with stomach acids to form nitrosamines, potent cancer-causing cells associated with oral, stomach, brain, esophageal and bladder cancers. Noticeable side effects include dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting. Want quick deli meats without the drawbacks? Stick to choices like Natural Choice Hormel, which is additive-free.
Can you guess this product by its ingredient list?
This next antioxidant preservative is used by food manufacturers to prevent fats and oils from spoiling, and is often used in conjunction with BHA and BHT. It’s claim to infamy: it might cause cancer, though the evidence to support this isn’t conclusive. Watch out for it in vegetable oil, potato sticks, chicken soup base, meat products, chewing gum and cosmetic products.
SODIUM BENZOATE AND BENZOIC ACID
These (b)additives are used in some fruit juices, carbonated drinks and pickles to stymie the growth of microorganisms in acidic foods. Though they’re naturally occurring and generally affect only people with allergies, there’s another problem: when sodium benzoate is used in beverages also containing ascorbic acid (aka vitamin C), the substances can form small amounts of benzene, a chemical that causes leukemia and other cancers. Though the benzene amounts are small, you should generally avoid it, especially in acid-containing foods and beverages.
Wonder bread may not be so wonderful. Potassium bromate—an additive used in breads (like Wonder bread) and rolls to increase their volume and produce a fine crumb structure—has been banned by every other industrialized country other than the U.S. and Japan. For the most part, it breaks down into inert bromide, but any leftover bromate that hangs around in the body has been shown to cause cancer in lab animals. You’ll find this (b)additive in Wonder breads, Gold Medal flours, ShopRite brand breads, and New York Flatbread brand. Potassium bromate may also be used to produce some types of malted barley, too, so double-check the labels of your favorite breads and crackers for PB in disguise. The good news: There are plenty of other baked goods that eschew potassium bromate in favor of safer alternatives.
Turns out, following the rainbow as far as processed foods are concerned is a pretty bad idea. Although some foods are colored with natural substances like beta-carotene and carmine, some 17.8 million pounds of food dyes (many of which are petroleum derived) are consumed in America, according to a 2005 survey by the Feingold Association. The good news is that 17 of 24 synthetic dyes have been banned from use in American foods. So what’s wrong with a little color? Red #3, used in candy, baked goods and desserts, has demonstrated chromosomal damage and thyroid tumors. Red #40, found in drinks, desserts, candy and pet food, has spurred lymph tumors in lab testing. Yellow #5 (aka tartrazine) and #6 may cause thyroid and kidney tumors, lymphocytic lymphomas and chromosomal damage. Bottom Line: They’re used in pet food, beverages, baked goods, desserts, candy and sausage. Your best bet is to opt for foods that use natural dyes like beta-carotene or annatto, or those that are dye-free. To have a game plan before you hit the grocery store, get the facts on popular brand-name products at labelwatch.com.
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