Consuming predominately real, whole foods is the ideal path to eating a nutrient-dense diet. However, sometimes we have to purchase processed foods to align with our busy schedules. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), processed food is defined as any raw agricultural item that has been subject to any process — washing, cleaning, milling, cutting, chopping, heating, pasteurizing, blanching, cooking, canning, freezing, drying, dehydrating, mixing, packaging, etc.
There can be lightly processed foods like some nut butters or highly processed foods like packaged cookies.
The problem is some of these processed foods that are labeled as healthy with buzz words like “organic” can actually contain chemically-rich ingredients that inflame our bodies. Before you make a purchase, review the nutrition label’s ingredient list, and look out for some of these unsavory additives to make sure it really is best suited for your healthy lifestyle.
Processed oils can be found in a plethora of products labeled as “healthy.” Canola oil and vegetable oil are the most popular offenders. These oils are used quite often — and in a variety of foods you may not even know include them.
Canola oil, found often in meat and dairy substitutes, for example, is processed in a way that exposes the oil to high temperatures, therefore altering its molecular chemistry and changing it into a trans fat. Because of its processing, the body does not know how to appropriately break these processed oils down, leading to inflammation and heightened “bad” cholesterol.
Hydrogenated oils pose another risk. Oils are meant to be liquid, but these are chemically altered into a solid by adding hydrogen (for example, how margarine is made). Hydrogenated oils are an issue due to the high chemical processing and because of their trans fat content.
Other oils to avoid: soybean oil, corn oil and anything that says “partially hydrogenated” or “hydrogenated oils.”
Oils to stick with: coconut oil, olive oil, avocado oil, peanut oil, sesame oil.
Artificial sweeteners are chemicals used in products to help the food taste sweet, as if sugar was an active ingredient. Common artificial sweeteners include saccharin, aspartame, acesulfame, advantame, sucralose and neotame. Studies have even shown a possible link between these sweeteners and cancer and gut health distress.
Along with artificial sweeteners, you also want to be mindful of your overall sugar consumption. Sugar is everywhere, and excess consumption can lead to poor balance of blood sugar, which leads to a plethora of negative symptoms such as stubborn weight gain, mood swings, fatigue, brain fog and menstrual issues. When purchasing a product, check the ingredients label to make sure the product has less than 10 grams of sugar and zero added or artificials sugars. Investigate where the sugar is coming from — there will often be multiple forms of sugar in one product. Even if these are natural sugars, be mindful of your overall daily intake.
If the product has an unnatural hue or coloring, set it back on the shelf and move along. Artificial dyes and colorings are used by manufacturers to entice people to consume them. These dyes have been linked to significant health issues, including cancer. The most common places where food dyes are lurking include baked goods, candies, sodas and processed snacks. However, unexpected products include gatorade, flavored yogurts, processed meats, chewing gum, ice cream and many others!
Sodium nitrates are commonly used to preserve food and are most often found in smoked and cured meats. These are accompanied with processed oils as a way to avoid oxidation of fats. The problem with sodium nitrates is it can cause a change in blood oxidation levels and essentially lessens the available oxygen level in the body — which hinders overall function. In addition, they have also been linked to increased risk of heart disease.
Monosodium Glutamate (or MSG) is a preservative used to enhance flavor. This ingredient can be found at fast food restaurants, in frozen dinner products, snacks and canned soups. MSG has been linked to metabolic disorders and obesity. There is conflicting evidence whether MSG can lead to harmful neurological effects, but some people do experience headaches and migraines upon eating MSG. To be on the safe side, double check those food labels and make sure the restaurants you go to do not use this additive.
There are many toxic ingredients lurking in packaged food products sold in grocery stores. When doing your weekly shopping, a general rule of thumb is, if you can’t pronounce it, don’t buy it. Instead, opt for real, whole foods to provide your body with nourishment.