When shopping for food, it's easy to get confused when almost every label is filled with a buzzword like "all-natural" or "gluten-free." To help decipher which foods are actually good for you and which just have clever advertisements, you'll want to know the specific ingredients to spot that automatically make a food unhealthy. Reading ingredient lists are one of the most important ways to figure out the quality of a food, and even if you're not a nutritional expert, knowing which are major red flags can help you make better decisions when you go grocery shopping.
"I like to tell my clients that the front of the package is similar to reading the back of the book — it gives you an idea but doesn't tell you the whole story," says Sarah Schlichter, MPH, RDN, LDN over email. "To understand the nutrients in a product, one must understand how to read the (back) nutrition label and ingredients list. The front of the package is just a way for marketers to try to sell their product."
Next time you're debating whether or not to buy an item at the store, pay attention to these 13 ingredients that automatically make a food unhealthy.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup is a common ingredient in even some of the most unsuspecting foods, from baked goods, to canned items, and even cereal. "This artificial sweetener is highly processed and contributes to obesity, high cholesterol, and tissue damage, among other nutrition-related issues," says Chef Jess, RD, over email.
Sodium Nitrate & Sodium Nitrite
Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite are used most to preserve the coloring, integrity, and flavor of foods, but they should be avoided at all costs. "You may have seen this on your favorite packaged lunch meat, but be careful of this substance," says Chef Jess. Once almost banned by the USDA, these chemicals have been linked to cancer, according to studies from the Cancer Research Center of Hawaii and University of Southern California.
Recombinant Bovine Growth Hormone (rBGH)
"This growth hormone boosts production of milk in cows, but it's not so good for humans," says Chef Jess. "This hormone is genetically modified and has been linked to various cancers."
Food dyes seem like they would be innocent, but in reality, they can be very harmful. "Some coloring agents are derived from ingredients found in roofing materials and exterior paint," says Chef Jess. "Artificial colors are linked to various cancers, ADHD, and autism." Look out for coloring agents such as Blue 1, Blue 2, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, and Red 40.
"It's not that enriched products are the worst, but they don't compare to their counterparts made with 100 percent whole grains," says Schlichter. "When products are enriched, nutrients have been taken out and then added back in during processing. In contrast, 100 percent whole grains use the entire grain from the start, so there are less added ingredients, more fiber, and more natural vitamins."
Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) & Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
"These are both preservatives, which means they're a processed product," says Tedrow. "There is also research out there that believes they are carcinogenic. More studies are still needed, but better safe than sorry is a good approach when it comes to preventing cancer."
Brown Rice Syrup
It might have the name "brown rice" in it, which could make it seem healthy, but this ingredient is nothing more than sugar. "Brown rice alongside lean protein on your plate? Perfect," says Allison Stowell, M.S., RD, CDN, registered dietitian for Guiding Stars. "Brown rice in the form of syrup in your granola bar? Not perfect. In fact this is code for added sugar and is not 'better for you' than other forms of sugar."
Palm Kernel Oil
Palm kernel oil, which is actually different than just palm oil, is to be avoided because of it's extremely high percentage of saturated fat — about 80 percent. "While palm oil contains saturated fat (7g/tbsp.), and therefore should be limited, it is much lower in saturated fat than palm kernel oil (11g/tbsp.)," says Stowell.
Fruit Juice Concentrate
When it comes to choosing juice, not all juices are created equal. "Organic or not, fruit juice concentrate is code for one thing: sugar," says Stowell. "Sure it may come from fruit, but is important to recognize that to your body (and bloodstream), it is just added sugar." You're better off drinking juice not from concentrate, or better yet, just eating the whole fruit.
"Not only is bleached flour white flour, but it's really white flour," says Lauren Harris-Pincus, MS, RDN over email. "It's actually bleached by a process to make it whiter in appearance. This is unhealthy for a few reasons, mainly because it's refined and lacking the nutrition of whole grain flour. It's even worse because of the chemicals used to speed up the bleaching process such as benzoyl peroxide or chlorine gas."
"By now there is enough research to show that artificial sweeteners are not good for our bodies," says Tedrow. "Certain sweeteners have been found to cause cancerous tumors, and they have been shown to actually increase sugar cravings. Words to look out for include sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame K, saccharin, xylitol, and sorbitol."
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
"MSG is a flavor enhancer that has been shown to mess with brain chemistry," says Tedrow. "Studies are still being done to determine just how dangerous or benign this flavor enhancer is, but if you see it on an ingredient list, odds are you’re eating a highly processed food, which is never a healthy choice." Some people experience sensitivities when it comes to consuming MSG, with symptoms including headaches, muscle tightness, numbness/tingling, weakness, and flushing, according to research from the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.