What’s Hiding in Your Food?

Did you know that the food industry allows more than 3,000 food additives to be used in the processing of our food? The FDA states these additives are used to help improve the taste, texture, consistency and visual appeal (food coloring) of food as well maintain freshness.

“ These processes can cause allergic reactions and stress on the liver to process such chemicals, many of which are cancer forming. Children exposed to such processes can become hyperactive and display learning difficulties.” – Dr. Gillian McKeith, author, ‘You Are What You Eat’

Brief History of Food Additives

Prior to the Civil War, it was common for people to harvest, cure, and store their own foods using limited, but natural things like spices, salts, and smoking to help preserve their food.

After the Civil War, when people were moving from rural areas to cities to work in factories, the need for someone else to help preserve a family’s food became a major business and additives and preservatives were born out of necessity. Appreciation for food purity became less of a priority and industrial processing became commonplace without any consideration on health impacts.

Eventually chemicals like copper sulphate, borax, and formaldehyde were being consumed in every home in America. Here is a link to a current list of food additives from the FDA Website.

Learning to decipher food labels is crucial to your health and my goal with this article is to help you become more aware of what you’re really eating and so you can make the most informed decisions for you and your family.

Beware of Greenwashing

Greenwashing is when a company or brand uses certain pictures, words, or phrases to make you think the product is healthier than what it really is. This happens a lot with cleaning products that claim to be environmentally friendly, but it happens all the time with food, too.

Think of phrases like “all-natural”, “natural”, “fat-free”, “clean”, “humanely raised”, “cage-free”, etc. Also think of green leaves, pictures of orchards, animals grazing in grass, and or anything that gives a very natural appearance as a possible red flag. I know…this is confusing. But just remember that the front of the package is designed to SELL and you must turn the package over and read the actual ingredient
list to find out if a product will work for you. I’ve caught myself so many times assuming and trusting the front label until I got into the habit of looking for big offenders, five of which we will cover here.

My general rule of thumb if I’m buying packaged foods, is to make sure it has five ingredients or less and that I’m able to pronounce and recognize each ingredient. There are so many additives, preservatives, chemicals and artificial ingredients in our foods, I believe we’ve become desensitized to what we are actually eating.

Five Common Harmful Ingredients

The additives lurking in your food that we are going to cover in depth in this article are High Fructose Corn Syrup (or HFS), Refined Sugar, Trans Fats, Monosodium Glutamate (or MSG), and artificial sweeteners.

Since the introduction of High Fructose Corn Syrup, obesity rates have more than tripled. It has also been linked to heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, liver failure, and more. The corn industry spends millions upon millions of dollars each year dispelling any of these health claims since HFCS is derived from a natural source (did you see it…there’s that word again). Let’s get this in writing: corn syrup and cane sugar are NOT the same thing. HFCS is a product of the industrial food system and extracted from corn stalks. Regular cane sugar is a natural product because of the formation of the sugar molecules glucose and fructose. Products with HFCS are sweeter and cheaper than those with real sugar and can also contain contaminants like mercury. HFCS is disease creating.

This offender can be found in sodas, cookies, crackers, cereal, ketchup, sweetened yogurt, salad dressing and a number of other common foods.

Refined Sugar

This is a topic I wrote about in the past, so be sure to check out our article, 5 Healthy Sugar Alternatives, to see our favorite swaps for refined sugar! Sugar is one of the most disguised ingredients ever with 56 different names that can be listed on a label. Some of the most common alternate names that I see listed are maltodextrin, dextrose, maltose, and sucrose. However, many healthier choices like coconut palm sugar and maple syrup are also on this list. So yes, the type of sugar counts, but so do the grams per serving. People in the United States consume about 100 pounds of sugar per year, which means it’s sneaking in every single day and this is making us very, very sick. In fact, this much sugar will cause the same negative health effects as consuming moderate amounts of HFCS.

My general rule of thumb is to stick to 4grams of extrinsic sugar per day, which equals one teaspoon. Therefore, if you’re eating a snack bar that has 20 grams of sugar in it, you’re consuming 5 teaspoons of sugar regardless of the source. So consider the source AND the amount to make the best choice possible.

Trans Fats

Trans fats are found in hydrogenated oil or partially hydrogenated oil and will wreak havoc on your health. There have been some recent steps taken to help eliminate the use of trans fat use in our country, but again, what’s listed on the label and what’s in the ingredient list are two different things. Trans fat is what allows a product like Crisco to stay good on a shelf for 30 years and is literally one of the worst foods you can eat. Trans fats are made when hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils in order to make them shelf stable. Places I’ve seen “hydrogenated oil” or “partially hydrogenated oil” on ingredient lists are vegetable shortening and many shelf stable cookies, some brands of microwavable popcorn, fried fast foods, and bakery goods (think all those fluffy muffins, cakes and pastries – it’s the vegetable shortening that gives it that texture and appearance). Here’s the point I want to drive home: if the amount of trans fat is below 0.6 grams per serving, companies are allowed to write 0 grams fat on the label, which is why it’s so important to also read the ingredient list.


MSG stands for monosodium glutamate and it’s hidden (no surprise) under a disguise of names like: yeast extract, autolyzed yeast extract, textured vegetable protein or TVP, carrageenan, sodium caseinate, soy protein, soy isolate and a few others, including ‘natural flavorings’ (natural flavoring doesn’t always mean MSG, but it can). I’ve also heard it called “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” because of the slew of symptoms people experience after eating at Chinese restaurants, who are known for using MSG heavily on all their foods. The main reason a manufacturer would use MSG in their product is for addictive behavioral responses meaning they want you to keep buying their product over and over again. Restaurants are notorious for this and use loads of MSG in their foods, which keeps you going back to your favorite restaurant. Obviously, there are some really good restaurants out there who make really good food without the MSG, but for the most part, we’ve become addicted to the MSG and not the purity and natural flavors of the food. You know how when you eat out you might think, “Why doesn’t MY food taste like this?!” It’s because you’re probably not using MSG as a spice in your own kitchen. Some restaurants that have recently banned MSG are Panera Bread, Jason’s Deli, Sweetgreen (in Washington D.C.), roti Mediterranean, Le Pain Quotidien, Veggie Grill (on the west coast), LYFE Kitchen, and Juice Press. There may be many other local options and you could easily find out more information by calling the restaurant directly or visiting their website.

Artificial sweeteners (Aspartame)

Despite its documented neurobehavioral effects, aspartame is still widely used and accepted as a safe (and even as a healthy sugar substitute by the diabetic community). A published study in 2014 showed that when individuals consumed aspartame daily for 8 days, they showed a more irritable mood, depression, and performed worse on spatial orientation tests than their counterparts who did not ingest any aspartame. And again in 2017, another documented report that studied 407,000 people over a ten year period showed that aspartame is linked to an increased risk of heart disease and increased body mass index. Researchers have come out calling these artificial sweeteners as “non-nutritive” because they offer zero calories, but it comes at a risk. Consumers are raising their likelihood of weight, waist circumference, obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, Type 2 Diabetes, and heart disease. Try swapping your aspartame for Lakanto, a naturally sourced zero calorie sweetener that is perfect for diabetics and for those looking to avoid sugar sweeteners altogether.

When choosing foods, look for unprocessed and minimally processed foods that have a short list of ingredients void of the ones listed above, which are detrimental to your health. Check out the food you already have in your pantry at home to see what you find. Then you can make a conscious decision about what to look for next time you go shopping.
What will be the first processed food or ingredient you will eliminate first?

Stephanie Wharton is a Board Certified Integrative Nutrition Health Coach and part of the Lending Hearts Up Street team. You can learn more about her at www.thewellsideoflife.com