Ingredient labels used to be a complete mystery to me. I knew there were certain ingredients I probably shouldn’t be eating, but I had no idea what they were or what alternatives to look for. A few years ago, as I developed my approach to healthy eating, I gradually learned what many of the strange-sounding ingredients were and what they do in our bodies.
Today I’m sharing a list with you of the top 10 ingredients I try to minimize in my diet. These are ingredients that are used by the food industry to make products look tastier, last longer, and be more flavorful. Unfortunately, they’re also linked to serious health problems.
To be honest, this list is depressing. (And it’s not exhaustive; there are other ingredients to watch out for, too.) Why is it so difficult to find simple, wholesome food anymore? Our world is fallen to the core, and even the food meant to build our bodies is actually tearing them down.
It’s our responsibility to nourish our bodies (and our children’s) with real food, and cutting back on processed ingredients will go a long way towards improving our health. At the same time, it’s also okay (even unavoidable) to make exceptions to our healthy eating rules. There might be a less-than-healthy food that we enjoy in moderation, or we might choose to eat differently when dining with others, traveling, or in unusual circumstances.
It’s a balance. You have to take what you eat seriously, but you also have to choose not to stress about it. Look at these ingredients, be vigilant about the foods you spend your money on, and rest in the fact that you’re doing your best for your family, regardless of what that looks like for you right now.
To help you take the next step in healthy eating, I’ve included several resources for you at the end of this post.
Note: The following ingredients are not listed in any particular order.
10 Ingredients to Avoid in the Grocery Store
Where you’ll find it: In chips and processed snacks, seasoning packets, microwave meals, breakfast meats, bouillon, condiments, canned foods, and more.
This flavor agent goes by many names, and from my readings, it’s very controversial! Some people claim that it’s an excellent way to add savory flavor to food and that it’s absolutely harmless. Others report all kinds of health complications as a result of eating MSG, particularly headaches and allergic reactions. Here’s a good post (with sources) on the risks of MSG.
2. Soybean Oil and Other Soy Products
Where you’ll find it: In bread products, salad dressing and condiments, snacks, crackers, even in ice cream!
Over-consumption of soy is linked to obesity, hormone disruption, thyroid dysfunction, infertility, and diabetes. Once you become a faithful label reader, you’ll find that soy seems to be in everything! It’s very easy to eat too much of it. Here is further reading on soy.
3. High Fructose Corn Syrup
Where you’ll find it: In everything! HFCS makes its way into juice drinks, sodas, condiments, bread products and baked goods, breakfast cereal, cough syrup, yogurt, crackers, and more.
Too much sugar in any form is bad for you, but High Fructose Corn Syrup appears to be one of the worst offenders and has been linked to obesity. Manufacturers continue to use HFCS because it’s cheap.
4. Hydrogenated and Partially Hydrogenated Oil
Where you’ll find it: Products containing shortening (pie crusts, baked goods, crackers), fried foods, non-dairy creamer, processed snacks, margarine, frozen pizza, pudding mixes, cake mixes.
Hydrogenation is a process that manufacturers use to solidify (or partially solidify) vegetable oil. It’s added to many products to extend their shelf life. Unfortunately, hydrogenated oils are trans fats, which are very bad news for your heart and brain, leading to strokes, depression, heart disease, and more. The FDA, late to the game as usual, is finally banning partially hydrogenated oil from food products for humans, but it will take years for this to go fully into effect. (And you’ll still be able to find it in pet food.)
5. Artificial Food Dyes
Where you’ll find them: In yogurt cups, snack foods, candy, cereal, condiments, drinks, pickles, convenience meals such as Hamburger Helper and macaroni and cheese, and more. Here are some of the worst dyes to watch out for.
Artificial food dyes have been surrounded by controversy for decades. The FDA is taking a “wait and see” approach, in spite of food coloring’s links to ADHD, cancer, and more. What’s really frustrating is that the FDA has been gravely mistaken about food dyes in the past, such as the carcinogen Red #4 (now only found in “garnishes” such as maraschino cherries). Don’t wait for the FDA to agree that processed food affects behavior!
Where you’ll find it: In sugar-free and “diet” foods, gum, candy, diet drinks, yogurt.
This artificial sweetener should never have been allowed into our food in the first place. It’s an addictive substance that’s been repeatedly linked to cancer, brain tumors, birth defects, Alzheimer’s, and more.
7. BHA and BHT
Where you’ll find them: In butter, meat, gum, cereal, snack mixes, bakery items, cookies, vegetable oil, pudding mixes, beer and more.
BHA and BHT are popular preservatives. The food industry claims that they’re harmless in small doses to humans, although there are animals studies that link them to tumor growth, thyroid disruption, and hormone disruption. For studies on BHA and BHT, check out this page.
8. Sodium Nitrate and Sodium Nitrite
Where you’ll find them: In lunch meat, hotdogs, pepperoni, breakfast meat and other cured meats.
These preservatives have been linked to various cancers. Although it’s tough to find cured meats without them, there are options in the grocery store (or from farmers) that use naturally-occurring nitrates from celery, spinach, or other foods. Here’s a good post on nitrates/nitrites for further reading (the comments on it are interesting, too!)
9. Sodium Benzoate
Where you’ll find it: Soda, juice beverages, pickles, condiments
Sodium benzoate is another common food preservative and inhibits mold growth in acidic food and beverages. However, it also deprives your cells of oxygen and is a carcinogen when combined with vitamins C or E. (See this article for further reading.)
Where you’ll find it: Flour and bakery goods (as potassium bromate) and citrus-flavored drinks (as brominated vegetable oil)
Bromine accumulates in your body’s tissues and central nervous system, and can lead to fatigue, mental illness, thyroid problems, and more. In flour and baked goods, bromate is used as a dough conditioner. Although it might be safe when consumed in baked goods, the chemical itself is a known carcinogen, which makes me cautious! It’s banned for use in food products in the EU, Canada, and several other countries. Brominated vegetable oil is an emulsifier used in some soft drinks and energy drinks (it, too, is banned in the EU and other nations). Here’s further reading on bromine.
Where to Go From Here
If learning about these ingredients inspires you to make changes to your diet, here are resources to help!
Related Blog Posts:
20 First Steps to a Real Food Diet – If you want to change the way you eat, these steps will help you get started!
25 Things I Don’t Buy in the Grocery Store (And What I Use Instead) – Crossing these items off your grocery list will help you avoid some of the worst ingredients.
Stocking the Real Food Pantry, Fridge, and Freezer – These are our real food basics and staples! (There’s a printable checklist included.)
Undress Your Food – Changing the way you look at food will change the way you eat!
6 Alternative to the Grocery Store – Sometimes the best way to get wholesome food is to avoid the grocery store altogether! Here are 6 alternative options.
For a brief history on the evolution of American food since 1950, you might enjoy my post on the Smithsonian’s FOOD exhibit.
Real Food for the Real Homemaker – This is a cookbook I co-authored that includes 75+ classic recipes made with wholesome ingredients, plus 8 chapters on incorporating real food into your homemaking.
Real Food: What to Eat and Why – This book is one of my favourite recommendations for learning about traditional foods.
Your Real Food Journey – This book handles real food in a non-judgmental way, giving you information for moving forward with healthy eating without leaving you feeling overwhelmed.
Also, LabelWatch is a helpful website for researching ingredients.
Disclaimer: I am not a healthcare professional and this post is not intended as medical advice. Please do your own research!