We all know our food ingredient labels are riddled with words that require an advanced degree to understand. Most of us bypass reading them because it’s easier. However, buried in those multi-syllabic words are chemical additives that can have an adverse effect on our health and how are bodies absorb nutrients. These chemical ingredients increase a food’s shelf life, enhance their flavor and color, and make them all-around more appealing to consumers. Packaged food manufacturers and fast food or dine-in restaurants use them (consider this 5-month-old hamburger from McDonald’s that has not varied in appearance at all). Use this list as a guide of eight chemical additives you should avoid.
Remember, as our pal Chef Rocco from Biggest Loser advises- shop the perimeter of your grocery store because that’s where all the unprocessed foods are stocked. Eat a diet rich in fresh produce, whole grains, lean proteins and fish and low-fat dairy and your body will thank you.
1. Trans Fat
This additive has garnered much attention recently, and popular trainer Jillian Michaels noted that its the one thing she’d completely remove from grocery stores if she could. Noted on food ingredient labels as “Partially Hydrogenated Oil or Vegetable Oil,” consuming this can be detrimental to your health by promoting poor cardiovascular health and premature heart attacks. Read your labels closely, a food containing <.5g of trans fat per serving is permitted to list zero grams on its label (like Special K Bars).
Culprits: Fried Food, Restaurant Food, Microwave Popcorn, Margarine, Crackers, Chips, Packaged Cookies and Cakes
It’s possibly one of the most dangerous additives in our food supply. Everyone from food manufacturers, restaurant chefs and dear old mom use it in nearly everything we eat and drink. Whether used as a preservative or to enhance or better the flavor, foods high in salt/sodium pose a great risk to our cardiovascular health. The recommended daily allowance for sodium is 2,400 mg, or 1 tsp. of table salt, per day. Fast food meals like McDonald’s Grilled Chicken Ranch BLT combo (~1785 mg Sodium), can contain close to, if not more, than an entire day’s worth of sodium.
Culprits: Fast Food, Deli Meats, Canned Goods, Crackers, Chips, Processed/Packaged Foods
3. Artificial Coloring
Typically found in foods that are already not providing any nutrition, it’s best to just stay away from anything with artificial colors. The dyes are just a chemical- so they contain no vitamins, minerals or other nutrients. Read food labels closely, and be especially cautious of those listing Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, Red 3, Yellow 6- all of which have been linked with various tumors and cancers.
Culprits: Soda, Candy, Juice, Packaged Baked Goods, Frosting, Gelatin, Fruit Cocktail, Sausage
Much sweeter than sugar, this artificial sweetener made it possible for dieters to enjoy the foods they love. In recent years, aspartame has taken its place and hasn’t been looked at as negatively. Saccharin has been considered for ban by the FDA, and is linked with multiple types of cancers in many studies. It’s a man-made chemical and again, promotes nothing nutritious within your body. It should be avoided wherever possible.
Culprit: Diet Soda, Sweetener Packets, Sugar-Free Food Products
That buttery flavor you love can usually be attibuted to this chemical ingredient. In 2022 it caught much publicity for being the responsible party behind “popcorn lung,” causing lung disease in the workers at microwave popcorn factories. That publicity fortunately caused it to be removed from most foods, but still worth examining your food labels to see if its lurking.
Culprit: Microwave Popcorn, Butter-Flavored Anything
Proctor & Gamble went out and created its own fat, and its brand name is Olean. When first created, it was promoted as not only being a fat you could eat, but a fat that would help you lose weight. It is added to typically greasy junk food snacks so that dieters can enjoy them, too. Olestra was quickly found to cause severe gastrointestinal and digestive issues because it is indigestible. It also inhibits the body’s ability to absorb nutrients like beta-carotene and lycopene found in fruits and vegetables.
Culprit: Pringles Light, Lay’s Light
7. Sodium Nitrite or Nitrate
You might have heard people say they avoid nitrates, and this is what they’re talking about. This chemical additive gives “cured meats” that salty flavor, and maintain their reddish tint. As an example, your hot dogs and bacon would be a grey color without it. Manufacturers say its use is important to prevent bacteria growth, critics suggest modern refrigeration does the same thing. This additive has been linked with cancers in children and adults.
Culprits: Ham, Hotdogs, Bacon, Canned Meats/Fish, Corned Beef
8. Potassium Bromate
It is likely you won’t find this additive in your bread goods, but be sure to glance at the label anyway. The U.S. is one of only two countries in the world who have not banned its use (Japan being the other). Bromate can be used to give bread more volume and a better structure. It has been linked to causing cancer in animal studies.
Culprits: White Flour Bread/Grain Products