Grocery store shelves are filled with packaged foods, from snacks to canned soups to frozen dinners. And while it’s common knowledge that processed foods can contain undesirable ingredients (saturated fats, food additives, etc.) to extend their shelf life, what are the ones that nutrition experts steer clear of themselves?
Knowing what you’re buying before placing an item in your shopping cart is important. “As a registered dietitian, I cannot stress enough the importance of being aware of what you’re putting into your body,” said Ashley Kitchens, a plant-based registered dietitian nutritionist. “It’s important to understand how food affects your daily nutrition needs and impacts your overall health.”
To make the decision-making process even more difficult when you’re at the store, each brand has its own recipe and ingredients vary. “Not all pre-packaged products, even if they seem similar, are formulated with the same ingredients,” said registered dietitian nutritionist Danielle Gaffen.
For example, two brands of granola bars are likely to contain different additives or sweeteners. “This variability shows why we should be aware of what is actually in the foods we’re eating, especially since many food additives might negatively impact gut health by promoting inflammation or triggering disease activity,” Gaffen said.
When you do purchase processed food, be aware of what you’re choosing. “If you’re going to buy a packaged food, make sure it aligns with your dietary choices and generally choose something that tastes good and makes you feel good,” Kitchens said. “And don’t let the labels fool you. There’s a lot of marketing that goes into messaging and packaging and getting you to buy a product.”
Below, nutritionists share ingredients they always look for in packaged foods and explain why they avoid them or limit their consumption.
On The Ingredients List
Emulsifiers (Carrageenan, Guar Gum, Etc.)
Emulsifiers are food additives that not only help blend ingredients that typically don’t mix, such as oil and water, but also provide a smooth texture and can extend the shelf life of a food product. Some common emulsifiers include carrageenan, guar gum, gellan gum and soy lecithin.
Some studies have shown that certain emulsifiers can cause side effects and negatively impact health (see more below), though the Food and Drug Administration deems food additives as safe. “Emulsifiers have been linked to changes in the gut microbiome,” Gaffen said. “This imbalance might lead to chronic inflammation, abnormal immune response, and even increase the risk of diseases like colitis.”
Emulsifiers are found in a variety of food products, including baked goods, chocolate, milk and plant-based milk, ice cream and more. Some are derived from animal or plant sources and some can be synthetic.
Carrageenan, maltodextrin and methyl cellulose are examples of plant-based emulsifiers, and polysorbate 80 is animal-based.
“Animal studies have shown that carrageenan can be associated with digestive diseases, inflammation and even cancer,” Gaffen said. “Similarly, maltodextrin has been found to alter the composition of gut bacteria, suppressing the growth of beneficial probiotics and promoting the proliferation of harmful bacteria, such as E. coli.”
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
A highly processed sweetener made from corn, high-fructose corn syrup is a common ingredient in an array of packaged food products. High-fructose syrup is in soda, juices, baked goods, cereals and flavored yogurts because it’s cheaper than sugar and is sweeter.
As far as side effects go, high-fructose corn syrup can cause digestive and other issues.
“This type of sugar can damage the colon and cause inflammation,” Gaffen explained. “Diets high in fructose, especially from HFCS, may contribute to inflammatory bowel diseases.” In one study, consumption of high-fructose corn syrup in mice exacerbated colitis, a disease that causes inflammation in the lining of the colon. Another review showed that high-fructose corn syrup increases appetite and can lead to obesity.
And if you’re wondering about fruit and fructose, they don’t act the same as high-fructose corn syrup. Fruit contains fructose, yet the body processes it differently than a highly processed syrup.
Partially Hydrogenated Oils And Trans Fats
There are plenty of reasons to decrease or avoid packaged food with trans fat. “Trans fats are predominantly present in processed foods as partially hydrogenated oils and are linked to adverse health effects like increased risk of heart disease and inflammation,” said Tamar Samuels, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Culina Health.
Even the FDA agrees on this one: “Removing [partially hydrogenated oils] from processed foods could prevent thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year.” The FDA no longer lists partially hydrogenated oils as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) and a compliance date was set for Jan. 1, 2021, for companies to stop using this oil in their products. However, that is currently being amendedand the new regulation won’t completely eliminate trans fat from foods, since trans fats are naturally occurring in meat and dairy products.
Experts avoid ingredient lists containing hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils (PHO), which is a sign a food product has trans fat.
However, food companies do their best to outsmart consumers and will modify serving sizes to avoid having to state if a food product has trans fat. The FDA allows food companies to round down to zero if the amount of trans fat is less than 0.5 grams in a serving.
“Oftentimes manufacturers may decrease the serving size for a food to keep the trans fat level to 0 grams,” said Michelle Routhenstein, preventive cardiology dietitian. The ingredient list will clue you in if it has this unhealthy fat. “Look for terms like ‘partially hydrogenated oils’ in the ingredients list to spot these hidden trans fats,” Samuels said.
Potassium chloride, a naturally occurring salt, is often added to packaged food as a substitute for table salt or sodium chloride. Food companies that want to reduce the amount of sodium in their product often rely on this ingredient.
One study on potassium chloride determined that it’s considered safe for consumption, and the FDA allows for food companies to call potassium chloride “potassium salt.” In some circumstances, manufacturers can use this as a partial substitute instead of salt, also known as sodium chloride.
According to Routhenstein, “Potassium chloride may sound like a perfectly fine vitamin to consume. However, if it is top on the ingredient list or consumed in larger quantities it can lead to heart arrhythmias, which can be life-threatening.”
Natural sources of potassium are easy for our body to absorb and digest, but when it’s added to food, the body responds differently and that can be a concern for people with certain health issues. “Our body is great at consuming potassium when found in food, but can have a harder time removing it from the body when taken in a supplemental form, especially if someone has known or unknown kidney issues, heart issues, or are on certain medications,” Routhenstein explained.
On The ‘Nutrition Facts’ Label
Another thing to watch out for is saturated fat, which you won’t find directly on the “ingredients” list but rather in the “nutrition facts.”
There are healthy fats and not-good-for-you fats. Saturated fats, the bad type of fats, are naturally occurring in certain meats, like beef, pork, lamb and poultry, as well as dairy products, such as butter, cream, cheese and ice cream.
“Saturated fats are concentrated in the fat of the animals. Therefore, trim your meat of any visible fat and take the skin off poultry,” explained Sylvia Klinger, registered dietitian nutritionist.
Saturated fat is also in fried foods and palm oil, which is often used as a cheaper oil for snack foods. “Palm oil is a highly concentrated source of saturated fat,” Routhenstein said. “High amounts of saturated fat has been linked to heart disease, insulin resistance, atrial fibrillation, and fatty liver disease.”
Consuming too much saturated fat can lead to health problems. “Saturated fats elevate LDL (the bad cholesterol) in the body, which can cause cardiovascular diseases, such as high cholesterol,” Klinger said. And registered dietitian Amy S. Margulies added, “Saturated fats should be limited to about 5-6% of your total daily calorie intake.”
High levels of sodium are found in many processed foods, including breads, pastries, cereals, soups, frozen pizzas, and meats, such as bacon and sausages. “Sodium provides amazing flavor, but too much can raise high blood pressure,” Klinger warned.
Consuming a lot of sodium can lead to health issues. ”Eating salt (sodium) may increase your blood pressure if you have high blood pressure, as well as overall cardiovascular risk,” Margulies said. “Too much sodium can make it harder for your kidneys to remove fluid, which builds up in your system, and increases blood pressure.”
And if you already have a health condition, eating a diet high in sodium can put you at greater risk. “Being mindful of sodium intake is important for people who have a risk for or currently have hypertension or high blood pressure, kidney disease, and dehydration,” said Samuels.
The recommendation is to consume less than 2,300 milligrams a day. If you are at risk for high blood pressure, you shouldn’t exceed more than 1,500 mg per day, according to the American Heart Association. “For reference, half a teaspoon of salt is equal to 1,150 mg sodium, and 1 teaspoon of salt is equal to 2,300 mg sodium,” Margulies said.