Most of us know that the healthiest options are always to eat whole foods, but sometimes, we're in a rush or in a situation where doing so isn't an option. In these cases, it's important to pay attention to food labels and spot the potentially dangerous ingredients you might want to avoid. It's usually not too difficult to decipher a junk food from a healthier option, but sometimes seemingly innocent products include sneaky ingredients that can wreak havoc on your health.
The United States is a little behind in eliminating ingredients that have been proven to be unhealthy, and if you're not paying attention, these additives can pop up in everything from pasta to drinks to dairy products. "The best way to avoid unhealthy ingredients within food is to eat a diet rich in minimally-processed whole foods," says Leah Kaufman, MS, RD, CDN to Bustle over email. "If you do choose to eat processed foods, be aware of what you are putting into your body. Generally, the shorter the ingredient list, the better."
Next time you're purchasing a lunch or snack, watch out for these six ingredients:
1. Hydrogenated Oils
Hydrogenated oils, also known as trans fats, are liquid oils converted to solid fat through a hydrogenation process. Because of this conversion, these fats, according to the Mayo Clinic, raise bad cholesterol levels and increase your risk of heart disease. Hydrogenated oils are often found in packaged baked goods, candy bars, and snack foods.
2. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
Most of us have heard the term "high fructose corn syrup" and associate it with a negative connotation, but not many people know exactly why. Research from the American Journal Of Clinical Nutrition claims that high fructose can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, even after just two weeks of consumption. "Aside from being an added source of sugar, which can lead to unwanted sugar spikes and dips, it is also a sign that a food is heavily processed," says Beth Warren, RD to me over email. The Mayo Clinic reports that there's no research that suggests that HFC is any less healthy than any other sweetener, but warns that "too much added sugar of all kinds — not just high-fructose corn syrup — can contribute unwanted calories that are linked to health problems, such as weight gain, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome and high triglyceride levels. All of these boost your risk of heart disease."
Sugar-free foods often contain a sugar substitute such as aspartame, an artificial chemical that can potentially increase your risk of heart attack and stroke, according to a study published Journal of General Internal Medicine. That said, Cancer.org reports that studies have shown that aspartame use does not increase a person's risk of cancer. Research is on going, but so far there's been no evidence that aspartame is harmful to one's health. Up to you to decide.
4. Sodium Nitrate/Nitrite
Often found in hot dogs and lunch meat, sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are added to preserve color and prevent bacteria, but can lead to formation of cancer cause chemicals in the body, according to a Shanghai Women's Health Study, published in part on the NIH website.
5. Soy Protein Isolate
"This ingredient is not the best quality choice of protein because it is so refined," says Warren. "Refined soy in high amounts is linked with many health controversies such as contributing to inflammation and cancer risk." Soy protein isolate is often found in energy bars and protein powder.
6. Artificial Food Dyes
Artificial food dyes, such as Yellow #5, Blue #1, and Red #40, are added to foods for a more vibrant color, but they can come with adverse side effects. They allegedly cause hyperactivity in children, as well as cancer and allergies, according to Forbes and Livestrong. Some of food-dye colors have already been banned in other counties.
When in doubt, check your ingredient label. If the list is too long to read every ingredient, you may want to choose another option.