I love lists. I love making them, I love looking at them and I love working with them.
I ESPECIALLY love crossing things off of them.
Confession: I’ve totally added something to my to-do list AFTER I had already done it, just so I could cross it off!
Lists help get things done, and if “get healthy” or any other various deviation of that is one of your goals this year, then listen up. I’ve got a list for you.
I’ve done lots of research over the years on what ingredients are unhealthy and which ones are okay. Sugar. Unhealthy fats. Preservatives. Colors. Morphed minerals that make our brains go crazy (literally)…. and that doesn’t even touch the surface of health and beauty items, or the icky stuff in your home.
After sorting through it all, I consider these to be the top 5 ingredients to avoid in food.
Don’t worry, we’ll cover the other topics later. Baby steps.
I’m listing these according to what I consider to be the worst offenders, so I recommend starting at the top and working your way down. If you are overwhelmed with life and only have 10 minutes to spare, start at the top. When you’ve digested the fact that some of your favorite foods could be causing your health issues, come back and work on #2.
But even if you never make it past #1, you’ll still have made serious progress. Your kitchen will be healthier and now you know about one of the worst ingredients you could eat. It’s all about baby steps, and when you take those steps at your pace, you’re much more likely to keep going forward.
A few practical tips to help you make change in your home:
- If the budget is a concern (as in you can’t throw away something because you can’t afford to replace it), then pledge to use it up and avoid the ingredient when you replace it.
- If getting your family on board is a concern, slow wean them off instead of going cold turkey (i.e. one box of crackers each month instead of one box each week).
Top 5 Ingredients to Avoid in Food
#1. Hydrogenated Oils
Also known as trans fats, hydrogenated oils are created in a lab. Food scientists take oil (any oil, but most commonly palm, kernel, soybean, corn or coconut oil), inject it with a metal (nickel, platinum or aluminum) and the end result is either a semi-solid or solid oil.
Now a disclaimer – there ARE some naturally occurring trans fats in dairy products and meat. It’s just how the animal digestive system works. But those naturally occurring trans fats aren’t a concern because they’re naturally occurring. It’s the man-made, industrial trans fats that we need to avoid (and this article is an easy read to understand why).
On a food label, you’ll see these oils listed as:
- partially hydrogenated
- fully hydrogenated
These fats are EVERYWHERE in processed food. When we first cleaned them out of our home, we found them in:
- crackers (saltine and others) (homemade recipe)
- granola bars (a flexible homemade granola bar recipe)
- cookies (our go-to homemade cookie)
- microwave popcorn
- hot cocoa (hot cocoa from scratch)
- BBQ sauce (which led us to make our own)
- salad dressings (again, more homemade recipes)
- coffee creamer (again, my current most favorite coffee creamer EVAH!)
#2. High Fructose Corn Syrup
Ugh. High fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is the Dr. Evil of sugar. It’s sugar that has been cooked down into a super-sweet concentration of sugar and it’s highly addictive. (Read details about the process in this post, and about the addiction here.)
HFCS makes white sugar look like an angel!
On a food label, high fructose corn syrup can be listed just like that or it can be abbreviated as HFCS.
Like hydrogenated oils, it’s in a myriad of foods:
- bread (our favorite homemade bread recipes)
- mayonnaise (use my homemade version instead)
- ketchup (make it yourself in a slow cooker)
- prepackaged meals, both frozen and shelf stable
- cereal (what we eat instead)
- crackers (homemade recipe)
- soup (delicious homemade recipes)
- yogurt (make it yourself)
- jams/jellies (we make our own fruit butter)
#3. Artificial Sweeteners
Artificial sweeteners (beyond HFCS) are super-common in foods labeled as “diet” or “sugar-free.” Yes, technically these foods don’t have sugar. But that doesn’t make them healthy.
When manufacturers remove sugar from food, it doesn’t taste quite as good. To make the food palatable AND still label it as “healthy,” they sweeten it with artificial sweeteners.
Here are the top two offenders among artificial sweeteners that you should avoid in foods:
- acesulfame potassium
There are others to avoid too, like sucralose, glucose, fructose, dextrose… and even sorbitol, mannitol and erythritol. But we’re taking baby steps here and adding them all into the mix can get overwhelming.
And if we’re being honest, if you eliminate hydrogenated oils AND high fructose corn syrup AND aspartame AND acesulfame potassium, you probably won’t have many foods left in your kitchen that even have ingredient labels anyway. So that’s good news!
The bad news is that artificial sweeteners can still be lurking in foods you wouldn’t think would have sugar, like:
- yogurt (make it yourself)
- breath mints & gum
- instant breakfasts, teas and coffee
- milk drinks
- and of course items labeled sugar-free or diet
#4. Artificial Preservatives
The goal of artificial preservatives is to make your food last longer. However if we’re being honest with ourselves, do we REALLY want our food to be edible three years after we buy it? Would it even TASTE good? Just think about what has to be done to the food to make it last that long…
I shudder to think about it, and you should too!
Like artificial sweeteners, there are A LOT of artificial preservatives out there. Some are worse than others, and there are some that haven’t even been tested well enough to offer insight either way.
For now, here are the top two I recommend avoiding:
- nitrates / nitrites
- BHA (butylated hydoxyaisole)
Nitrates/nitrites are most commonly found in processed meats like lunch meat, bacon, and sausages and has been linked to cancer, so it’s best to avoid. The natural alternative is to choose foods that use a more natural method to preserve (like celery juice or salt or sugar), and to consume those in moderation. (Read more about nitrates/nitrites.)
BHA slows the rancidity of oils in food and animal testing has led the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to consider BHA to be “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” This preservative is most often found in chips, cereals, gum, and vegetable oil.
#5. MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)
Far beyond Chinese take-out, MSG enhances the flavor of many foods. The kicker is that MSG is a excitotoxin, literally causing the cells of the brain to be excited to death, which can be a trigger for certain neurological diseases. (source)
There are other side effects too – like headaches, nausea, drowsiness and fatigue – that can be both short term and longer lasting (depending on how much MSG is consumed).
Have you ever eaten Chinese food and felt tired a an hour or two later? MSG is likely the culprit, and unfortunately, these list of ingredients ALWAYS contain MSG:
- autolyzed yeast
- calcium caseinate
- glutamic acid
- hydrolyzed protein
- monopotassium glutamate
- monosodium glutamate
- sodium caseinate
- textured protein
- yeast extract
- yeast food
- yeast nutrient
For a list of ingredients that OFTEN contain MSG, read here.
I can’t even begin to tell you what foods might have MSG, because it’s everywhere. I’ve seen it in seasonings, frozen meals, meats, soups and even baby formula. This one is also tricky to implement, since there are so many different names for the same thing.
Honestly, I avoid anything that has “glutamate” (which covers four items listed) and “yeast ___” or “___ yeast” (which covers another four). I feel pretty good about my odds with this strategy, despite it not being 100%. Fortunately by this point, there are very, very, VERY few items left in the house with an ingredient label to read!
I love printing out your recipes. Is there any way I can delete the picture of the item that I am going to print? It seems like a waste of ink to print the picture.
Hi, just now saw your question. If you choose the print ‘button’ across the top of the preview you’ll see an option to deselect images as well as comments and notes and other stuff. I only have a black ink laser printer and I don’t find that my toner runs out all that faster. Basically recipes are all I use it for. But I take a two step approach. First, I save the recipe to my tablet(s) in an app designed for recipe saving. It’s called AnyList and it’s not available in a windows version, only Mac OS or iOS or iPadOS. Since we have a windows PC free household it’s quite easy. When I am saving recipes on my phone, any of my iPads or either computer it’s in the app. And available on all the others. Once in the app I can snip out any parts of the recipe I want. I usually keep the images which are very tiny. But I can remove them if I want by just printing straight to the printer after selecting options. For our household we use iPads in the kitchen to cook from, rather than using paper. I have one iPad mini I use exclusively in my kitchen just for meal planning, grocery lists and recipes. After reading about Bill Gates plans to forcibly inoculate people, force the eating of fake meat by restricting access to real meat I decided I’m not spending another penny supporting his company. I’m apple all the way.
Amy Lynn Swiatczak
I’m envisioning my future pantry and it looks quite bare. I’m excited and ready to learn more! Thanks for posting about this information.
In the High Fructose Corn Syrup category, would you also list regular corn syrup and light corn syrup?
Once you get a hang of real food, yes. At first though, when you’re JUST switching over, I’d worry about HFCS first.
I wanted to add my other group of 5 that are more advanced. Haha.
1. First on the list is gums. Most gums come from nefarious sources. And it is found in things that don’t need thickening like cottage cheese, or bottled dressing. Especially avoid xanthum. Comes from a bacteria exudate. Gross. Second, carrageenan. Some studies say it’s carncinogenic. Why chance it. It’s unnecessary.
2. Artificial flavors like vanillin. Made in labs not from plants.
3. GMO seed oils like canola and soy — soy oil was developed as an industrial lubricant. Canola was created from rapeseed, very bitter and toxic. GMO in general is bad but it’s hard to determine if what you eat ever ate any.
4 and 5. Antibiotics added to cheese and their buddies, the anticaking agents. We need less antibiotics in our water and it doesn’t help that they are added to shredded cheeses. Tillamook has none. And it has no anticaking agents. Yes, it clumps but pre grated cheeses are very useful especially if you freeze it. I’ve tried grating and freezing as well. Depends on what I need it for but I never ever buy it with additives.
Great tips Clairie – thank you for sharing!
I’ve been reading your recipes only a few days (needed school lunch inspiration!) and have been so excited to try lots of recipes! I’m very interested in you research into ingredients too. I’ve always bought simple real food but occasionally am drawn to something organic, seemingly simple and not easy to make at home. Example: puffed green peas snack sticks at Aldi in their simply nature line of foods. These have a fairly short ingredient list but one is expleller pressed oils, and they listed the seed but I don’t recall what it was. Do you anything about this type of oil? The process to make it? The process to get it though our bodies? Thanks!!
Hi Emily! Expeller pressed oils are made from putting the ingredient (soy, olive, coconut, etc.) under immense pressure. Imagine a bunch of olives being squished to smithereens, and the oil that oozes out would be expeller pressed olive oil. Not a bad option by any means, but the concern would be the heat caused by the friction of the press possibly harming the oil. If given a choice, cold pressed would be the better of the two options. 🙂
I completely agree with everything on this list! I have also weeded these things out of our house (except for the foods that other people give my kids!). We also very occasionally have bacon with nitrates. But, I definitely agree with your top picks. I had never heard of metals being injected into oil to make trans fats-that is truly terrible!
Great list of unhealthy ingredients.
Some studies show that every other organic or healthy product actually isn’t.
They are full of additives and hidden sugars.
If you put a ‘superfood’ or ‘healthy ingredients’ label on products, sales will increase for 50% at least.
I’m still learning and doing, but I’m doing. High Fructose Corn Syrup is my big one. So I make my own catsup and BBQ sauce. There are lots of recipes on line, just find one that your family likes, or make your own changes to it. So I appreciate all the home made recipes you have on line.
I would add:
Red food dyes listed as : cochineal, carmine, or carminic acid
Give deep red shade to fruit juices, gelatins, candies, shampoos, and more, come from the female Dactylopius coccus, an insect that inhabits a type of cactus known as Opuntia.
This is a great way to begin eating and living healthier, not only saying “eat whole foods” but explaining specifically why we avoid these certain ingredients.
Another great resource with easy recipes and ideas for how to eat in expensively is Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon and Mary Enig. This book explains in depth what Tiffany has outlined here in this article, plus it has tons of great and inexpensive meal options (aside from the higher cost of quality dairy and meat).
We have been eating this way for 2 years now and the skin problems, migraines, lethargy, moodiness, and other weird symptoms we used to experience are gone! It really will change your life.
I tried to look up “interestified” and found “Interesterified” instead, … the fatty acids have been moved from one triglyceride molecule to another, and is said to be even worse than hydrogenated fats — ICK!! I had never heard of this before and never would have looked for it, although I avoid all the rest mentioned. Thank you for pointing this one out! -Michelle G
It has taken two years but our pantry looks completely different than when I started changing what we eat. We have also been healthier than ever before and I know it’s from getting rid of items with these ingredients. You have helped me make further changes in what we eat and challenged me to further stretch our food dollars.
I want to encourage every one out there to start with just one item at a time. For me the first item was fruit bars. It took a couple of tries before I found ones that we liked and with the better ingredients. Then I changed our cereals but now we don’t even eat cereals except occasionally a bowl of Kashi Go Lean (high in protein). Then our bacon we changed to one without nitrates/nitrites. Just one step at a time forward means you are always making progress. 🙂
Excellent advice Cheryl, and way to go on those baby steps! That’s proof that over time they do add up!
Cheryl: I’m very interested in other foods you have cleared out of your pantry. I’m trying to make as mush homemade as I can. How did the pioneer ladies ever do it??
Any help from you would be greatly appreciated. thanks Linda
That list of ingredients that ALWAYS contain MSG is scary! But seriously, gelatin? So if I buy a box of unflavored gelatin, it contains MSG?
There are sources of gelatin that would not have MSG. Vitacost (online retailer) has a few that are good and you can even use it to make your own “jello”.
Katie – I’m agreeing with Cheryl here and believe the list is citing “gelatin” on most lables rather than that found from a quality source. Great Lakes (the brand I have) and Vital Proteins both offer animal-based gelatin.
YOu may want to examine your sources (such as the one for MSG, especially if they are written by Dr. Mercola—known for peddling questionable items. Look him up: ” Joseph Michael Mercola (born 1954) is an alternative medicine proponent, osteopathic physician, and web entrepreneur, who markets a variety of controversial dietary supplements and medical devices through his website, mercola.com.”
He is one of the charlatans who peddles the idea that autism can be caused by vaccines—a falsity that has been disproven by EVERY SINGLE medical study here and in Europe. In fact, the British doctor who first proposed that theory was found to have falsified his data and is no longer allowed to practice medicine.
I think MSG has its problems, but if you are going to give nutritional advice, please use sources not shown to be questionable and shilling their own useless products…
From Mercola or not the hazards of MSG are well documented. I read the source and all info appeared to be accurate regarding the compound in question; it would be extremely easy to verify it all through other sites and sources.
I would add artificial colors. Food colouring is a toxin. In that I would include caramel colouring. I never used to because I thought it’s pretty basic to make caramel. But there are many processes to make caramel colouring and some of them are toxic.