I’ve been cooking up a storm at Casa de Life Happens When! I’m very excited to share some new recipes with you soon.
In the mean time, I thought I’d share with you some of the top additives I avoid when purchasing food.
Just to recap, I am now in the habit of buying foods that have 10 ingredients or less, though I have been able to reduce that to 5 ingredients or less the majority of the time. I aim to buy fresh, whole foods. Typically, if there is an ingredient in a product that I can’t pronounce or can’t decipher what it is, I no longer buy it.
After over 7 months of research and scrutinizing labels, I can figure out within just a few seconds whether an ingredient falls into the “not really harmful,” “mildly harmful” or “no way am I putting this in my body or my family’s” category.
We tend to follow the 80/20 rule in our home. That means 80% of the time, we eat wholesome, real, minimally processed (if at all) foods. The other 20% of the time, we either eat out or eat foods that contain more processed ingredients than I’d like. At this point in time, it’s the most realistic for us.
I’m pretty strict these days, but there are certainly people out there who are stricter than I’ll ever be. When I first started, I simply found some of the worst additives and chose to weed them out first.
If you are at the early stages of a “real food” journey, this post is for you. I thought I’d share the top additives I always avoid (whenever humanly possibly) and why.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) is an additive that is used to add flavor to food. It is recognized as safe by the FDA, which is why it can be found in nearly every processed food including soups, salad dressings, processed meats, and frozen dinners. Although it’s considered “safe,” it has been linked to numerous disorders and diseases including chronic headaches, fatigue, obesity, depression, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. It has even been linked to learning disorders and disabilities.
Many people have an intolerance to MSG and don’t even realize it. The side effects are fairly minor, but include headaches, upset stomach, diarrhea, and/or vomiting.
My greatest concern about MSG is the fact that there are dozens of alternate names for it hidden within the ingredients of our food. For a detailed list, click here.
Takeaway: MSG is probably not overly harmful if consumed in great moderation. It’s nearly impossible to avoid MSG at all times, and I know I’ve consumed it both intentionally and unintentionally over the past 7 months. Avoiding canned soups and frozen dinners would be a great place to start! Also, familiarize yourself with some of the other names for MSG. That was both eye opening and disheartening for me. Good-bye, Panera bagels I loved oh so much!
Artificial Food Dyes/Colors
Artificial food coloring is used to add color to food (obviously). Again, the FDA actually approves these dyes, which is why they are in our food. They don’t add any nutritional value, just make our food pretty to eat. They can be found in many soft drinks, macaroni and cheese, cookies, icing, yogurt, and even pickles. Yes, pickles.
Unfortunately, artificial food dyes have been linked to numerous health issues ranging from hyperactivity in children to cancer.
Recently, I learned that foods sold in the United Kingdom containing artificial dyes must have a warning label. Also, major food brand companies, including Kraft, have created comparable and affordable alternative products for other countries that do not contain artificial dyes, but have not done the same for the United States. I can’t begin to tell you how angry this makes me.
Did you hear about the petition that Lisa from 100 Days of Real Food and Vani from Food Babe created to ask Kraft to remove artificial dyes from their Macaroni and Cheese? Over 270,000 people (myself included) signed the petition, but Kraft refused to listen. Or they made up some ridiculous story about how they were “listening” to the millions of customers who buy their products. It all comes down to the money in their pocket. And I can assure you, I will go out of my way to never intentionally put money in their wallet again (and they own a lot).
A very informative post with additional links about artificial food dyes can be found over at 100 Days of Real Food.
Takeaway: Artificial food dyes should be avoided as often as possible. Following the 80/20 rule, however, gives a little bit of leeway to enjoy the occasional snack or treat that contains artificial colors.
High Fructose Corn Syrup
A few years ago, I remember watching a commercial trying to convince consumers that HFCS was “natural” and no different than sugar. I sort of bought into it at the time. And in a way, the marketers were right. HFCS does derive naturally and mimics table sugar, but it is still an additive used far too often to sweeten our foods. And it is highly processed, even more so than regular sugar (which is also processed, unfortunately).
High Fructose Corn Syrup is considered “generally safe” by the FDA, but has been linked to numerous health issues, including obesity.
My greatest concern with HFCS is the fact that it is in EVERYTHING! It’s in ketchup and cereal and soft drinks and candy. It’s even in bread! Not all that long ago, people survived just fine without HFCS. Why does it suddenly need to be in pretty much every processed food out there?
Takeaway: High Fructose Corn Syrup should be avoided as a general rule, especially if it is listed as one of the first few ingredients. But here’s the thing: HFCS is only slightly worse than granulated (table) sugar, which is highly processed, as well. Sugar should really be avoided as a general rule, as well. Stinks, doesn’t it? Moderation. There’s that word again, but it’s true. Though when it comes to HFCS, the less, the better.
Speaking of sweets, I also avoid artificial sweeteners. The most common one is Aspartame and can be found in diet soft drinks, “sugar free” products, yogurt, desserts, flavored waters, and, of course, packets of Equal or Nutrasweet.
Aspartame has been linked to a wide variety of health issues from headaches and dizziness to nausea and seizures. Of greatest concern is the fact that Aspartame has been linked to cancer, though the FDA approves it as safe and research isn’t totally clear.
Takeaway: Give up those diet soft drinks! Come on! You can DO it!
Butylated hydrozyttoluene is an additive found most often in cereals. It is used to preserve the freshness of such products.
Food for thought: BHT is also used as a stabilizer for pesticides, gasolines, lubricants, and soaps. Yum! How about that with a side of Cinnamon Toast Crunch?
There doesn’t seem to be a great deal of information about the side effects of BHT other than studies of liver & kidney failure and cancer in rats. But if all that happens to a rat, do we even want to know what it will do to a human? It has been banned from baby cereal because it has been linked to hyperactivity in children. Oh yeah- it’s also banned in England. What is going on, America?!?!
Takeaway: Use with discretion. As for me and my house, we’ll be buying cereals without BHT. And we prefer oatmeal, anyway.
Oh and just for fun, my research on BHT and other preservatives reminded me of this dialogue from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.” Funny, yes! Disturbing? You betcha. You know there’s somebody out there saying this about the additive they’re working on!
Bill: “What’s that new thing you got over there at food and drug?”
Clark: “Oh the Crunch enhancer? Yeah it’s a non-nutritive cereal varnish. It’s semi-permiable. It’s not osmotic. What it does is it coats and seals the flake, prevents the milk from penetrating it.”
Bill: “Yeah it’s a beautiful product.”
Clark: “Yeah I like it.”
Hopefully this gives you a good place to start. I’ll admit that it’s challenging, overwhelming, and just plain hard to take the first step into the “real food” world.
To quote my 12 year old nephew, “Man, we can’t eat anything!”
But, really, once you get past the fact that pretty much everything in a box, package, or bag has not so great ingredients in it, you start to realize there are lots of actual foods out there that are wholesome, delicious, and healthy.
Before you know it, you’ll be whipping up meals from scratch, buying organic, and spouting off a list of questionable ingredients to relatives, friends, and anyone who will listen.
For all my veteran “real food” friends, what other additives do you avoid?
Life happens when we eat real food.