Secret #3: Go Easy On Processed Foods.

Researchers who have analyzed U.S. eating habits sum up what is wrong with our diet in just two words: ultra-processed foods. These are foods that contain ingredients such as colors, flavors, sweeteners, preservatives, hydrogenated oils, emulsifiers and other additives that would ordinarily not be found in our kitchen.

In a study published in the journal BMJ Open, scientists led by Carlos Monteiro at University of Sao Paolo found that “ultra-processed foods” comprise nearly 60 percent of all calories Americans consume in a typical day! This study, by pointing out that ultra-processed foods contribute about 90 percent of the added sugars that Americans consume daily, is the first to draw a strong connection between processed foods and the U.S. rate of added sugar consumption.

Know Your Ingredients

More than 3,000 food additives are added to processed foods in the U.S., and this is one of the key reasons you should avoid most of the processed foods that contain them. Many of the food additives that are perfectly legal to use in U.S. foods are banned in other countries. The banned ingredients include various food dyes, the fat substitute Olestra, brominated vegetable oil, potassium bromate (aka brominanted flour), Azodicarbonamide, BHA, BHT, rBGH, rBST and arsenic. While many well-meaning nutritionists will teach you the importance of reading food labels, the easiest way to eat healthy is to stick with foods that need no food label at all. When was the last time you saw an ingredients list on a bunch of broccoli or a grass-fed steak?

There is a good chance, though, that you do eat some processed foods, and if this is the case reading the label is invaluable. There are literally thousands of ‘red flags’ to watch out for in processed foods, following are the ones to avoid at all costs:

Added Sugar (including High-Fructose Corn Syrup)

Over the past several decades, added sugar has become one of the leading contributors to America’s obesity as well as a host of other chronic diseases. “Added sugar” refers to any type of sugar or sweetener that is added to foods or beverages during preparation or processing. Sugar comes in many forms, including high-fructose corn syrup, fructose, fruit juice concentrates, honey, sugar granules, syrup, corn syrup, sucrose and dextrose. There are some 257 names for sugar that could be listed on food labels, but despite very minor variations, they all create the same damage. Please refer to Table 5 for the most common ones.

The average American consumes about 19.5 teaspoons (82 grams) of added sugar each day, which is three times the recommend amount, and adds up to 66 pounds of added sugar per year.

All this extra added sugar is extremely detrimental for our health. Studies link added sugar to cardiovascular disease, the world’s number one cause of death. A 2014 study published in JAMA: Internal Medicine was the first to observe a significant relationship between added sugar consumption and increased risk for cardiovascular disease mortality. It found that people who consumed 17-21 percent of their calories from added sugars had a 38 percent higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than people who got 8 percent of their calories from added sugar.

Sugar contains a lot of calories, with no essential nutrients. It can cause resistance to the hormone insulin, which can lead to type II diabetes and many other diseases. Excess fructose from added sugars gets turned into fat, which can lodge in the liver and cause non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. In addition, the metabolic problems associated with sugar consumption ultimately lead to systemic inflammation. Multiple studies show that people who eat excess sugar are at a much higher risk of getting cancer. And if that’s not enough, sugar triggers a massive release  of dopamine in the brain. For this reason, people who have a susceptibility to addiction can become strongly addicted to sugar and processed foods containing sugar.

So, yes, watch for this culprit on food labels and make a special effort to avoid it. There is no reason, however, to avoid naturally-occurring sugars such as those found in fruits, vegetables and dairy products. These foods also contain fiber, nutrients and various beneficial compounds which make the sugar a more healthful, sustained source of energy.

Monosodium Glutumate (MSG)

MSG is an excitotoxin, which means that it overstimulates neuron receptors. Neuron receptors allow brain cells to communicate with each other, but when exposed to excitotoxins, they fire impulses at such a rapid rate that they become exhausted, depleted and die.

A growing body of research strongly suggests that regularly consuming excitotoxins over an extended period of time can destroy significant numbers of brain cells and potentially triggers or worsen fibromyalgia, IBS, learning disabilities, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and more. One of the best overviews of  MSG can be found in Dr. Russell Blaylock’s book Excitotoxins: The Taste that Kills

The FDA itself states that:

“Studies have shown that the body uses glutamate, an amino acid, as a nerve impulse transmitter in the brain and that there are glutamate-responsive tissues in other parts of the body, as well. Abnormal function of glutamate receptors has been linked with certain neurological diseases, such as Alzheimer’s disease and Huntington’s chorea. Injections of glutamate in laboratory animals have resulted in damage to nerve cells in the brain. “Part of the problem is that free glutamic acid (MSG is approximately 78% free glutamic acid) is the same neurotransmitter that your brain, nervous system, eyes, pancreas and other organs use to initiate certain processes in your body.”       ~U.S. Food and Drug Administration, “FDA and Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)”, August 31, 1995

Nevertheless, the FDA continues to claim that consuming MSG does not cause ill effects.

Artificial Sweeteners

In spite of artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame, sucralose, ACE K and saccharin, being declared “safe” by the FDA, they have been controversial since they were first introduced to the market in the 1950s, and scientific research shows they are associated with many dangerous side effects. They are known to cause symptoms ranging from headaches and migraines to weight gain and even more serious conditions like cardiovascular disease.

Aspartame, a neurotoxic chemical masquerading as a harmless additive, also known as Nutrasweet, AminoSweet or E951, is the most commonly used artificial sweetener and flavor enhancer in the world. It is sold under the NutraSweet and Equal brand names. Courtesy of Monsanto (which “gifted” humanity with PCB’s, Agent Orange, RoundUp and GMO’s, to name just a few), this neurotoxic chemical is present in more than 6,000 products, including over 500 pharmaceuticals, and is consumed by millions of people daily. According to Dr. Betty Martini, founder of Mission Possible World Health International, an organization of medical professionals working to remove aspartame from foods, drinks, and medicines, aspartame has brought more complaints to the American Food and Drug Administration (FDA) than any other additive and is responsible for 75 percent of such complaints to that agency.

In 1995, the agency was forced, under the Freedom of Information Act, to release a list of aspartame symptoms reported by thousands of victims. The FDA thus compiled a list of 92 symptoms, including: headaches, dizziness or problems with balance, severe depression, vomiting and nausea, abdominal pain and cramps, decreased vision and/or other eye problems, seizures and convulsions, memory loss, fatigue, weakness, paresthesias (“pins and needles,” “tingling”) or numbness of the limbs, sleep problems, hives, itching, change in menstrual pattern, difficulty with Urination, change in body weight, glucose disorders, blood pressure changes, hallucinations, dental problems, swollen lymph nodes, and more. More recently, the EPA found Aspartame to be a potentially dangerous chemical along with BPA. Aspartame appears to  also worsen or mimic the symptoms of certain conditions such as fibromyalgia, MS, lupus, ADD, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, chronic fatigue, and depression.

Over the years, various studies have also implicated Aspartame in contributing to diabetes type II and cancer. In the Multiethnic Study of Atherosclerosis published in 2009 by the American Diabetes Association, daily consumption of diet drinks was associated with a 36% greater risk for metabolic syndrome and a 67% increased risk for type 2 diabetes. According to a 2014 study, “its [aspartame’s] metabolite – diketopiperazine – is cancirogenic in the CNS [central nervous system]. It contributes to the formation of tumors in the CNS such as gliomas, medulloblastomas and meningiomas.”

Back in 1985, Dr. Adrian Gross, Senior Science Advisor at the Environmental Protection Agency and former Searle Task Force investigator, stated that “at least one of [the aspartame rat] studies has established beyond any reasonable doubt that aspartame is capable of inducing brain tumors” (statement from Adrian Gross, included in the Congressional record, August, 1985). In a survey of 164 aspartame studies, conducted by Dr. Ralph G. Walton, professor of psychiatry at Northeastern Ohio’s College of Medicine, 83 of the 90 independently funded studies “identified a problem” with aspartame while every single one of the 74 studies funded by the aspartame industry attested to the safety of this additive.

In her 2002 Open Petition for Recall of Aspartame, addressed to the FDA, Dr. Martini states that “It is a heinous crime to approve a drug as an additive because of its interaction with other drugs and possible death, and in this case aspartame is a neurotoxic drug. Dr. Roberts  [in his book Aspartame Disease: An Ignored Epidemic] mentions under interference with drug action that aspartame can alter the action of important drugs. They include coumarin (Coumadin), phenytoin (Dilantin), antidepressants, other psychotropic agents, propranolol (Inderal), methyldopa (Aldomet), throxine (Synthroid) and insulin. This means that aspartame victims don’t have a chance because physicians have been lied to, and having no knowledge that aspartame is a drug, can prescribe the very drug that will interact, since it reacts with just about every drug used to treat the problems it causes. If someone had a seizure from aspartame which is so common its epidemic, they would prescribe Dilantin or like drugs and they interact. It is pushed on diabetics and aspartame not only can precipitate diabetes but also interacts with insulin. Aspartame damages the cardiac conduction system and interacts with cardiac medication. The phenylalanine in aspartame not only lowers the seizure threshold but also depletes serotonin, which triggers all kinds of behavioral and psychiatric problems, and aspartame interacts with antidepressants. It can precipitate Parkinson’s and interacts with L-dopa. The FDA approved the neurotoxin Redux and FenPhen and if they took this with an aspartame-laced drink, it’s a double whammy as mentioned by psychiatrist Dr. Ralph Walton. This could be the reason so many died.”

Artificial Trans Fats

Artificial trans fats (or trans fatty acids) are created in an industrial process that adds hydrogen to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. The primary dietary source for trans fats in processed food is “partially hydrogenated oils.” Look for them on the ingredient list on food packages. Intake of trans fatty acids has been linked to an increased risk of coronary heart disease by contributing to the buildup of plaque inside the arteries that may cause a heart attack.

Food companies are currently allowed to say they have zero trans fat, and label the product as such, if they contain less than 0.5 grams per serving. Many experts say trans fats are unsafe even at that level. In 2015, the FDA announced that by 2018, food manufacturers must remove the primary source of artificial trans fat from their products. So, soon we should have one less item to worry about in processed foods.

Natural and Artificial Flavors

Natural and artificial flavors both contain chemicals. Natural flavors are derived from edible sources such as animals and plants. Although natural flavors sound better, they can still be processed in labs and other chemicals can be combined to imitate real flavors. In fact, over 2,000 chemicals are combined on average to make about 500 natural flavors. Currently, “natural” is too vague of a definition and is not closely regulated in the food industry.

Artificial flavors are derived from inedible sources such as petroleum. Studies suggest that the side effects of artificial flavorings range from nervous system depression, dizziness, chest pain, headaches, fatigue, allergies, brain damage, seizures, and nausea. Some of the more popular flavorings can also cause genetic defects, tumors and bladder cancer to name a few. There are over 3,000 different types of artificial flavors. One of the more common artificial flavor, caramel, has been known to cause vitamin B6 deficiencies, genetic defects, as well as cancer. Saccharin, another popular flavor ingredient, can bring on allergic or toxic reactions, tumors, and bladder cancer.

Artificial Food Colors

Artificial food colors contain various chemicals and are commonly derived from petroleum products. From soda to salmon, the food industry adds more than 15 million pounds of artificial food dyes into our food supply each year. Dyes can be found in thousands of foods, including breakfast cereal, candy, and chewing gum.

Artificial food colors have been linked to attention problems, including attention deficit disorder (ADD), and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, Citrus Red 2, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 1, Blue 2 and Green 3 have all been identified as being, or being contaminated with, potential cancer-causing chemicals. Blue 1, Red 40, Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 are known to trigger reactions in those with allergies. The British government and the European Union have taken actions that are virtually ending the use of most food dyes throughout Europe. Luckily, for the concerned U.S. consumer, pressure from major chains like Whole Foods and consumer advocacy groups has resulted in natural dyes replacing artificial dyes in nearly 40 percent of foods and beverages sold in the U.S.

Other Food Additives and Preservatives

More than 10,000 additives are currently allowed in food. Some are deliberately formulated into processed food while others get into food during processing, storage and packaging. Many additives raise concerns and have been linked to serious health problems, including allergic reactions, endocrine disruption and cancer.

Some of these hypersensitive allergic reactions include:

  • Digestive disorders – diarrhea and colicky pains
  • Nervous disorders – hyperactivity, insomnia and irritability
  • Respiratory problems – asthma, rhinitis and sinusitis
  • Skin problems – hives, itching, rashes and swelling.

The different types of food additive and their uses include:

  • Anti-caking agents – stop ingredients from becoming lumpy.
  • Antioxidants – prevent foods from oxidizing, or going rancid.
  • Artificial sweeteners – increase the sweetness.
  • Bulking agents – increase the volume of food without major changes to its available energy.
  • Colors – enhance or add color.
  • Emulsifiers – stop fats from clotting together.
  • Flavor enhancers – increase the power of a flavor.
  • Flavors – add flavor.
  • Flour treatment – improves baking quality.
  • Foaming agents – maintain uniform aeration of gases in foods.
  • Food acids – maintain the right acid level.
  • Gelling agents – alter the texture of foods through gel formation.
  • Glazing agent – improves appearance and can protect food.
  • Humectants – keep foods moist.
  • Mineral salts – enhance texture and flavor.
  • Preservatives – stop microbes from multiplying and spoiling the food.
  • Propellants – help propel food from a container.
  • Raising agents – increase the volume of food through the use of gases.
  • Stabilizers and firming agents – maintain even food dispersion.
  • Thickeners and vegetable gums – enhance texture and consistency.

EWG’s “Dirty Dozen Guide to Food Additives” is an excellent source of information regarding ingredients associated with serious health concerns, some of the worst failures of the regulatory system, additives banned or restricted in other countries and what you can do to avoid these ingredients.

For Part 3 of this blog series, click on 5 Secrets For Maximizing Your Nutrition Blog Series – Part 3
Ronit Mor, ND

Ronit Mor, ND

Ronit Mor, ND, is the founder of My Wellbeing Compass and Mor Wellness Concepts. As a naturopath and a clinical aromatherapist, her greatest passion is educating, empowering and inspiring people on their path to regaining optimal vitality and wellbeing. She is also an author, regularly contributes articles to different publications, and is a local and an international speaker. Clients seeking her out for health and wellness are interested in increasing energy and vitality, improving chronic conditions, shedding excess weight, and slowing down/reversing aging indications. She guides them on matters pertaining to nutrition, detoxification, plant medicine, stress management, and a variety of alternative healing modalities.