New Year’s has just passed and one of the most common resolutions people make (and break) is to eat healthier. A significant aspect to eating healthier is avoiding highly processed foods (ones made with chemicals used to flavor, extend shelf life, sweeten, and color) and instead opting for minimally processed and whole, natural foods. For a quick guide, check out this article from the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics that explains the difference between highly and minimally processed foods.
A suggestion for a simple way to start a healthier diet is to read the labels for chemicals or highly-processed ingredients on every food you purchase. More often than not, canned, dehydrated, or other packaged products have unhealthy chemicals added. Below are five ingredients that are among the least healthy and most common in many of the processed foods we are choosing to eat.
Hydrogenated/Partially Hydrogenated Oils
Food companies use hydrogenated oil to increase shelf life and save money. It’s a process in which a liquid unsaturated fat is turned into a solid fat by adding hydrogen; this process creates trans fat. There are minor amounts of trans fats found naturally in some foods, but the vast majority come from these processed hydrogenated fats. Margarine, vegetable shortening, packaged snacks (we’re pointing at you, vending machines!), ready-to-use dough, fried foods, and coffee creamers (both dairy and non-dairy) are common foods with high percentages of these oils.
Sodium Nitrates/Sodium Nitrites:
Processed meats like bacon, deli cold cuts, jerky, and hot dogs often have these two preservatives to help prevent spoilage. The main reason to avoid these is the purported link to an increased risk of cancer in both children and adults. A Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University study found that nitrates are associated with an increase in brain tumors, leukemia, and nose and throat tumors. There is evidence that they cause colon cancer and metabolic syndrome, which can lead to diabetes.
Studies suggest that artificial sweeteners like saccharin (Sweet’N Low, SugarTwin), aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), and sucralose (Splenda) trick the brain into forgetting that sweetness means extra calories, making people more likely to over do it on sweet treats. And they may be even harder on metabolic systems than regular sugar.
I love M&Ms just like the next guy but let’s face it — those bright blues and greens and reds can’t be any kind of natural. Studies have linked Blue#1 and #2, Green#3, Red#3, and Yellow#6 to thyroid, bladder, adrenal, kidney, and brain cancers. Candies, popsicles, soft drinks, puddings, yogurts, gums, boxed mac n’ cheeses, and baking mixes are often the biggest culprits here.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
This processed sweetener made from corn is found in a range of processed foods, from condiments and cereals to crackers, pickles, and salad dressings, and was introduced into the US food supply 30-plus years ago. This was about the same time obesity levels started pushing up at great rates, so many blame HFCS for playing a key role in America’s obesity epidemic.
Per researchers at Tufts University, Americans consume more calories from HFCS than any other source. It raises triglycerides, increases fat-storing hormones, and pushes people to overeat and gain weight.
The bad news for me is my beloved Oreo’s are made with high fructose corn syrup; the good news is Trader Joe’s makes an Oreo-like cookie called Joe-Joe’s that are just as tasty without the HFCS.
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