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Before modern food processing technology came into existence, humans hunted, gathered, and prepared all of their food. They collected berries, ground wheat, grew hearty vegetables, and cooked fresh fish.
Today, you can easily walk into a grocery store and buy prepackaged beef jerky, popcorn, candy, and sweetened beverages with ease.
The types of life-threatening diseases humans currently face are no longer small infections or viruses. Three of the top five leading causes of death are:
- Heart disease
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention emphasize that maintaining a healthy weight and reducing tobacco use are top contributors to a healthy lifespan. (1)
Have we moved into an era where our biggest threat is ourselves? Plainly put what we eat matters.
What Are Processed Foods?
Instead of whole foods, a diet high in processed foods is consumed by the average American. Processed foods are any food that has been altered from its natural state.
Of course, the majority of the food we eat has been “processed,” including the head of broccoli you cut and roasted in olive oil for dinner.
Generally speaking, “processed foods” refer to highly refined food items that have been greatly altered from their original state. You might even be able to define these as “ultra-processed” foods.
Ultra-processed foods are “industrial formulations which, besides salt, sugar, oils, and fats, include substances not used in culinary preparations, in particular additives used to imitate sensorial qualities of minimally processed foods and their culinary preparations.” (4)
Processed foods include:
- White rice
- White bread
- Sweetened beverages
- Deep-fried foods
- Protein bars and shakes
- Fruit snacks
What Is an Additive?
A food additive is any substance added to food, but it is more often defined as a substance that impacts the taste of food or is used during food processing with a specific purpose.
Food additives are commonly added to food to:
- Increase shelf life
- Enhance flavors
- Reduce the cost of the food item
- Stabilize a product during treatment
- Change the food texture
Additives can also be added to foods in trace amounts indirectly from the packaging. In fact, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that food packaging manufacturers provide safety data before using their packaging material. (5)
Food additives can also be added to food items based on health goals. For example, many companies began to add artificial sweeteners to their products to reduce sugar intake.
Food Additives You Should Avoid
Here are food additives from which you should stay away:
Aspartame is a chemical that was discovered by accident when chemist James M. Schlatter was working on an anti-ulcer drug.
He mixed two naturally occurring acids and decided to stick his finger in the mix and taste it. He quickly realized that aspartame had an intensely sweet taste.
Aspartame was filed to enter the sugar substitute market in 1973 but was not approved until years later in 1981.
The safety of aspartame was approved mainly based on two animal studies, one with use in dogs and the other with use in rats. More studies were conducted in hamsters and monkeys. (8)
The company owning the rights to aspartame sweeteners faced many critics and trials during their attempt to prove aspartame’s safety. Certainly, a lack of initial human evidence was unsettling.
Even decades later, the aspartame debate is still just as hot as it was when it was approved. Studies have linked aspartame consumption (and other artificial sweeteners) to brain tumors in rats, (9)(10) stroke and dementia in humans, and cellular changes in the brain.
While many scientists believe aspartame to still be safe, it might be best to skip over the sugar-free gum until more conclusive evidence has emerged.
Nitrates are naturally occurring substances often found in vegetables, especially celery. Nitrates are not inherently “bad,” but studies have shown that excessive intake of nitrates has been linked to an increased risk of cancer, especially colon cancer. (11)
Nitrates are commonly used in processed meats, including sausage, jerky, and bacon. The World Health Organization released a surprising announcement last year classifying processed meats as group 1 carcinogens (cancer-causing agents). (12)
You maybe better off without processed meat. Choose fresh nitrate-free cuts instead.
3. High-Fructose Corn Syrup
High-fructose corn syrup is a highly processed sweetener produced from corn. It is cheap to produce, which is why it is commonly found in foods.
However, high-fructose corn syrup is also easily absorbed in the body, posing blood sugar complication risks for the consumer.
Be careful, high-fructose corn syrup sneaks its way into many common food items, which include:
- Salad dressings
- Canned fruit
- Granola/snack bars
- Ice cream
4. Trans Fats
Unlike naturally occurring saturated and unsaturated fats, trans fats must be created. What is even worse, trans fats require a reaction catalyst such as nickel.
Trans fats have been directly linked to multiple diseases. They can raise your bad cholesterol (LDL) while lowering your good cholesterol (HDL).
Trans fats can also raise your risk of heart disease and stroke and are even associated with type 2 diabetes. Trans fats are often found in pastries, frostings, crackers, and microwave popcorn, and they comprise margarine entirely.
Thankfully, trans fats are being banned around the world. Seven countries in Europe have now banned trans fats, and the United States joined in 2015, requiring that food companies change their production to remove trans fats by 2021. (13)(14)
Is sodium safe to eat? Of course! However, excess sodium quickly becomes a problem when added to foods.
The American Heart Association recommends that you limit your daily sodium intake to no more than 2,300 mg per day; however, an ideal limit is no more than 1,500 mg per day. (15)
Foods with excess sodium added can quickly race past the recommended sodium intake. For example, one serving of some types of canned soup can contain 1,000 mg!
Keep a close eye on the nutrition label of your favorite snacks and meals to reduce your sodium intake and support your heart health.
6. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
Monosodium glutamate has been widely controversial for a long time. It is one of the most commonly used food additives because it adds a unique taste to foods.
Also known as the taste of “umami,” MSG is also called “China salt.” It gives food a taste that is difficult to describe in comparison to other foods. You could potentially describe MSG as savory.
Skip foods that include this ingredient and opt for something less processed. (16)
Dangerous Food Additives for Children
The American Academy of Pediatrics warns that food additives may be harmful to children, specifically due to their developing organs.
Here are three food additives you should avoid exposing your children to.
1. Bisphenols (Including BPA)
Bisphenols can mimic the hormone estrogen in the body. Because of this, it can affect a child’s developmental process during puberty. This additive may also increase body fat and interfere with the nervous and immune systems.
Avoid bisphenols by purchasing bisphenol-free cans, water bottles, and plastics that your food or drinks come in contact with.
2. Perfluoroalkyl Chemicals (PFCs)
Perfluoroalkyl chemicals are found in some food packaging. They do not break down in the body and can accumulate over time.
These chemicals have been linked to low birth weights and immune, thyroid, and fertility complications. Keep an eye out for food companies that use this chemical in cardboard.
3. Food Coloring
Dr. Claire McCarthy, a Harvard faculty editor, states that food additives “have been found to increase symptoms in children who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, or ADHD. They are found in all sorts of food products, but especially those marketed for children.”
While the conclusive evidence on food coloring is still up for debate, it is best not to expose your child to food coloring, especially while they are still developing.
Expert Answers (Q&A)
Answered by Olivia DiPio, LD (Registered Dietitian Nutritionist)
As a dietitian, I try to not use the word “avoid” as it seems extreme for food items. But I do think people should limit certain things, such as processed food. A good rule to live by is, if you do not know what it is, then why would you eat it?
One popular rule is “no more than five ingredients,” but many good products have more than five ingredients. I suggest eating whole foods and limiting processed foods such as cakes and cookies.
Some great questions to ask yourself are:
• “Do I know how this food was grown?”
• “Is this a whole food?”
• “How was this product made?”
Whole foods are the best tools to help you lose weight because they are low in calories and high in important nutrients that fuel a healthy lifestyle.
No, dairy products are helpful as they provide not only calcium but also protein, vitamin D, and potassium.
I would not deem any vegetables as bad because vegetables should always be a staple of any healthy diet.
Nitrates and nitrites naturally occur in the human body and in some food items such as vegetables. Food companies add them to foods such as deli meat to help with preservation, add a salty flavor, and improve the meat’s appearance.
Overall, vegetables are the best food on the planet, and you should not limit your intake of them.
No food should be avoided at all costs. If you enjoy a food item, then eat it. However, think about portion control and how often it is consumed.
I would not suggest eating your favorite food multiple times a week, but practice being present when eating it to avoid overindulgence.
In the United States, the use of trans fat is illegal.
No food is “harmful” to elderly people. Regardless of your age, make sure that you are aware of any food and drug interactions with your prescribed medications.
Grapefruit should be avoided when taking Lipitor, which is a common medication. An individual who is prescribed warfarin, a common blood thinner, should be conscious of vitamin K intake.
Foods that contain high amounts of vitamin K are dark leafy greens, liver, and cauliflower. Overall, make sure to review your medications list for any food interactions and avoid those food items.
If someone is looking to change their lifestyle, then I think a great place to start is by trying to have two servings of fruits or vegetables at every meal. Try to add things to your life instead of taking away because it creates a better mindset to stay on track.
Keeping track of calories is also important because it helps you count your calories and stay in a calorie deficit, which is the only way to lose weight. But you need to have a lifestyle that is packed with a variety of healthy foods while still being satisfied.
The addition of 2 servings of fruits and vegetables will make you feel fuller longer as well as get you all the nutrients while having a lower caloric intake.
About Olivia DiPio, RDN: Olivia is a wellness dietitian in the Cleveland area. She is a certified dietitian who wants to help individuals create the best version of themselves. She currently works for Eurest, helping large companies establish a wellness environment.