An illustration of a grocery bag filled with healthy foods is shown.
A quick look at the ingredients will tell you which foods to avoid. If it sounds like a chemistry experiment, steer clear. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Eating healthy has become one of the most confusing and frustrating tasks of 21st century life.

Many products are no longer made of actual whole food ingredients. Instead they include chemicals, additives and preservatives, or they’re simply “food-like” products. In some cases whole foods have been processed into added ingredients.

How can we ever know what is best to buy at the store?

To get you started, here is a list of ingredients to avoid:

1. Sodium nitrates/nitrites

Sodium nitrates and nitrites are found in processed meats as a preservative. Processed meats include deli meats, sausages, bacon, hotdogs and the like. This preservative has been strongly linked to cancer. Look for “nitrate or preservative-free” meats, or better yet, fresh meats.

2. Hydrogenated oils, aka trans fat

Hydrogenated oils are vegetable oils that have been processed in such a way that the foods they’re in—and the oils themselves—are more shelf-stable. It’s good for food companies but not for your body. Trans fat increases cholesterol and your risk for heart disease and diabetes. It is found mostly in fried foods and bakery products.

Keep trans fat as low as possible and beware—labels can say “0 grams trans fat per serving” and still have up to half a gram of trans fat in the product. Look at the ingredients to be sure!

3. Sugar in all its forms

Sugar comes in many forms—high fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, agave nectar, honey, maple syrup, dextrose sucrose, rice syrup, cane juice crystals, maltodextrin, fruit juice concentrate and so on.


In doubt? Leave it out

There is such an overabundance of food additives and preservatives on the market, it’s virtually impossible to review every one of them in short order.

When in doubt, the best approach is to look at the ingredients list, not just the nutrition facts. Choose products whose ingredients are from whole foods, not items that sound like they should be in your chemistry class.

Small, occasional amounts of these foods aren’t likely to cause problems, of course, but remember that moderation is key. When in doubt, leave it out!

And I think we are all aware of the dangers of too much sugar—diabetes, obesity, high cholesterol and the like. But it can get tricky with all the various names. Sugar is used as a preservative and, of course, a flavor enhancer. It can even trick your mind into wanting to eat more. It comes in many forms on ingredient labels and it’s almost impossible to eliminate.

Women should keep their intake of added sugar below 24 grams and men should keep it below 36 grams.

4. Artificial flavors and colors

These include any flavorings that say “artificial” or that list colors such as blue, lake, red, yellow 1, 2, 3 and caramel color. The research findings on artificial flavors and colors are mixed, but many people find they are sensitive to these ingredients with various side effects.

The fact is, they are artificial. This means they’re not made from food products that are meant to go in the body. They are also a good sign that the food product is highly processed and does not contain other healthy ingredients.

5. Artificial sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners—sucralose, aspartame, saccharin, etc.—are many times sweeter than sugar, without the sugar. Research on artificial sweeteners has also been in high debate, with most unsafe effects coming from very high doses.

However, there is no way to draw a line on a safe amount and, again, they are artificial and not a natural food. This only raises questions about how the body can handle it.

Research has looked into links to cancer, migraines, weight gain, craving sweets, increased risk of metabolic syndrome, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Artificial sweeteners may even alter the good bacteria in your gut. And that’s just to name a few of the possible side effects!

6. Oils: Corn, vegetable, soy bean

These oils contain more of the omega-6 fats than most other oils. While these oils are an essential part of our diet, too much can be problematic. Omega-6 fats lead to inflammation, and inflammation leads to a host of other illnesses, including heart disease.

Most Americans get too much oil, as it is such a common ingredient in packaged foods. These oils can also be damaged (oxidized) if not processed and stored correctly, which leads to more damage inside your body.

7. Enriched wheat

This flour has been processed to remove the bran and endosperm of the wheat grain, leaving you without essential nutrients such as fiber, B vitamins, vitamin E and minerals. Look for whole wheat as the first ingredient in any grain product.

8. Carrageenan

Carrageenan is a food additive extracted from seaweed. It is used to help thicken foods and is commonly found in low-fat dairy products and dairy alternatives to make them feel creamier. Research has linked it to gastrointestinal diseases (Crohn’s disease, abdominal pain, etc.) and inflammation, which then leads to heart disease, cancers and diabetes with constant inflammation.

9. Potassium or sodium benzoate

Potassium and sodium benzoate are preservatives added to soft drinks and juices to inhibit the growth of mold, bacteria and yeast. This chemical is not very harmful in this form, but when paired with vitamin C, as well as light and heat, it can form benzene, a strong carcinogen. Therefore, take caution not to buy drinks with both vitamin C and benzoate. Better safe than sorry!

10. Bisphenol A, aka BPA

BPA is not necessarily a food ingredient, but is found in the epoxy resin lining aluminum cans, the lining of some glass jar lids, cash register receipts and some plastic bottles and containers.

The FDA has banned it in baby bottles and infant formula containers, but it’s still allowed in the others.

There is more and more research linking BPA to many reproductive disorders, such as infertility, cancer and abnormalities in child growth. Look for BPA-free cans and containers and avoid microwaving in plastic.