Controversial Ingredients on Your Food Label, Explained

There’s more to a food label than just the nutrition facts — though those numbers can be extremely valuable if you’re trying to lose weight, get in shape, or just improve your overall health. A food label also contains are vital information related to every packaged food you purchase. It will give you allergy warnings, but can also (and is required by law to) tell you exactly the ingredients that go into your body when you eat a certain food.

Your food label says a lot about how well you are (or aren’t) eating. It’s vital to know which chemicals you’re inviting into your own personal biological ecosystem — whether they’re beneficial chemicals ore potentially harmful ones.

Unfortunately, the controversies surrounding many food label ingredients make it difficult to know which ingredients are good for you, and which ones you need to stay away from. Here is a breakdown of some of the most misunderstood ingredients in your food, why they’re there, what they mean, where you’ll find them, and whether or not they’re actually safe to eat.

Hydrogenated and partially hydrogenated oils

What is it? Put simply, oil is fat. Unlike butter, for example, oils are liquid at room temperature. They come from plants (think vegetable oil) and fish. Not all oils are bad for you. Many foods that contain them, such as fish, also provide essential nutrition for different parts of your body.

How are oils used in food processing?

Manufacturers use oil (fat) for a variety of reasons, especially when it comes to highly processed foods. Fats and oils can improve the look, taste, and texture of foods. You will typically find three types of oil listed on a food label: polyunsaturated oil, monounsaturated oil, and saturated oil.

Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated oils contain essential fatty acids — they’re good for you in small amounts. Saturated fats, which are only found in animal products like meat and dairy, can be harmful in large amounts. Balance out your intake of “good” and “bad” fats in your food to stay healthy.

On your food label, you’ll see ingredients such as:

  • Sunflower oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Canola oil
  • Palm oil
  • Shortening

Sometimes you will see oils labeled as either partially hydrogenated or hydrogenated. These are two very different ingredients — one of them is relatively safe, but the other should be avoided at all costs.

Partially hydrogenated oils

Otherwise known as trans fats, these dangerous chemicals can cause damage to your arteries and significantly increase your heart disease risk.

Note that the trans fat you see on food labels isn’t the same as the trans fat found naturally in products like beef or steak. Trans fats that occur naturally in animal products are fine. The trans fat in your Krispy Kreme doughnuts, however, is artificial — it’s all but banned by the FDA. Within a few years, you won’t find artificial trans fats in your food anymore.

Hydrogenated oils

Unlike partially hydrogenated oils, hydrogenated oil is fine to consume in small amounts. When you partially hydrogenate oil, it’s semi-soft — think of margarine, which used to contain trans fat (most brands have already removed it from their products). When you fully hydrogenate oil, it’s completely solid, and doesn’t contain harmful compounds like trans fat. However, hydrogenated oil still contains saturated fat. The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting your daily saturated fat intake to 10 percent or less of your calories consumed.

Are oils safe?

That depends on the type of oil and the overall quality of the food you’re looking at. Vegetable oils, for example, may contribute to inflammation — their chemical structure changes when exposed to high temperatures, which may have negative affects on your health. The amount of oils you consume also makes a difference. There is such thing as good fat (such as the oils you get from salmon or tuna), but you can even overdo it on that. A little bit of fat is good for you. Too much simply isn’t good for your heart. Unfortunately, the “eat it in moderation” philosophy is the best strategy to follow here. Just … don’t fry everything you eat. It’s not necessary.

Which foods most commonly contain oils?

  • Butter and margarine
  • Mayonnaise
  • Certain salad dressings
  • Nuts and nut butters
  • Seeds
  • Black olives
  • Fish
  • Avocado
  • Ice cream
  • Pizza dough
  • Some types of bread

Monosodium glutamate (MSG)

What is it? Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a chemical added to foods to enhance their flavor. One of its most important components, glutamic acid, is an amino acid essential for many of your body’s normal functions, including your brain and immune system. MSG isn’t on your food label to hurt you. In fact, the majority of people experience no negative side effects when consuming it regularly.

Is MSG safe?

The FDA labels MSG “generally recognized as safe,” which means manufacturers are allowed to use it in their food as long as it appears on the label. It’s a controversial chemical, because many people claim to experience negative symptoms like headaches, sweating, and chest pain after consuming food that contains MSG. However, researchers have yet to find a link between MSG and adverse reactions.

Some people may experience short-term reactions to MSG, but symptoms are mild and don’t cause significant harm, only discomfort. MSG really isn’t something to worry about, unless you mind any minor reactions you might have to it. If you’re sensitive, it’s possible to avoid it. You’d just have to eat fewer processed foods (not a terrible thing!) and be more careful at restaurants (ordering in or dining out).

Which foods most commonly contain MSG?

  • Chinese food
  • Frozen dinners
  • Potato chips
  • Ranch dressing
  • Canned vegetables
  • Canned soups
  • Fried chicken
  • Grilled fast food

Food colorings and dyes

What are they? Manufacturers often add artificial colors to foods to improve their appearance. While you can color food naturally, artificial dyes produce a brighter, more appealing color — and therefore are used more prominently. Red, yellow, and blue dyes are the most common types. They’re used to color everything from your M&M candies to your boxed macaroni and cheese.

Are food colorings and dyes safe?

Food dyes are another controversial ingredient on your food label researchers aren’t fully confident will actually hurt you. Some animal studies have been conducted to test possible cancer-causing affects, but research up to this point is inconclusive. Since food dyes are common in processed foods, if you are concerned about artificial food coloring, cutting back on your consumption of processed food will benefit you in more ways than one.

(Animal studies are important in the process of studying how food impacts our health. However, it’s unwise to use the results of an animal study to predict an effect in humans. We are not mice — something that gives a mouse cancer might not hurt us at all.)

Which foods most commonly contain artificial coloring?

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Flavored instant oatmeal
  • Salad dressing
  • Maple syrup
  • Canned fruit
  • Peanut butter
  • Candy (e.g., M&Ms)

High fructose corn syrup (HFCS)

What is it? High fructose corn syrup is a sweetener added to your sodas, juices, and many processed foods to — you guessed it — make them taste sweeter. It’s very similar to table sugar, so in a sense, eating something with high fructose corn syrup in it is sort of like swallowing a few tablespoons of the sugar you store next to your baking flour. Yikes.

Is high fructose corn syrup safe?

Despite concerns that it’s at fault for the ever worsening obesity epidemic, there isn’t much scientific evidence out there to support such a bold link. However, we do know for certain that added sugar is terrible for you, especially when you eat it often. The more added sugars you consume, the higher your risk for developing chronic diseases like obesity, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease. If you’re at risk for any of these conditions because of your diet, high fructose corn syrup isn’t your only problem. Once again (sorry!), moderation is your friend.

Which foods most commonly contain high fructose corn syrup?

  • Soda
  • Salad dressing
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Canned fruit
  • Fruit juice
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Granola bars
  • Jam and jelly
  • Ice cream
  • Store-bought baked goods

What about other types of sugar?

There’s a lot of added sugar in most of the processed foods you eat. The reason it’s so hard to detect is that you will actually see it listed under its many other names on a food label. High fructose corn syrup is just one of sugar’s many aliases. Refer to this list of alternate names for sugar if you’re paying close attention to food labels in order to avoid it.

Artificial sweeteners

What are they? Many people use artificial sweeteners to replace traditional sugar in their diet. It saves calories, and doesn’t raise blood sugar — a literal life-saver for many people with type 2 diabetes. Because it’s a sugar substitute, it might seem too good to be true. In some ways, it might be. It’s one thing if you’re using Stevia in your morning coffee instead of a tablespoon of table sugar. It’s another thing entirely to consume more soda and “sugar-free” snacks simply because they don’t have sugar in them. But before we get into that, what’s the deal — are these alternative sweeteners dangerous?

Are artificial sweeteners safe?

There isn’t any evidence that artificial sweeteners cause cancer in humans. In fact, they could even have a few benefits. That doesn’t mean you can replace all your sugar with sweeteners and remain totally safe, though. Artificial sweeteners are mostly found in highly processed foods, which are harmful to your health for many reasons. Just because artificial sweeteners don’t cause cancer doesn’t mean eating large amounts of foods high in sodium and fat is a good idea. Sugar free snacks can be just as harmful to your health as snacks full of sugar. Choose your snack foods wisely.

Which foods most commonly contain artificial sweeteners?

  • Candy
  • Powdered drink mixes
  • Soda (both regular and diet)
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Breakfast cereal
  • Some packaged whole wheat breads

Is it ever OK to eat foods with these ingredients?

The reason so many of these ingredients are controversial is because many people operate under an “all or nothing” mindset when it comes to food. Yes, some people are sensitive to MSG — they should avoid it. People with type 2 diabetes should not consume added sugars — they should avoid them. But to the average healthy human, a little MSG isn’t the end of the world. A little sugar isn’t a death sentence.

Still, there are certain foods that contain more than one controversial ingredient — which probably means you can afford to eat it less often.

Based on the above, consider limiting (but not necessarily eliminating) these foods in your diet:

  • Breakfast cereals
  • Flavored yogurt
  • Soda (regular or diet)
  • Certain salad dressings (e.g., Italian)
  • Some frozen dinners

Remember: Healthy eating is a mix of “good” and “bad” food

That being said, always keep in mind that healthy eating doesn’t always have to mean saying no to “bad” food. You don’t have to deprive yourself of the foods you enjoy eating simply because they have ingredients in them that might cause you harm if you eat too much of them. So no, you shouldn’t eat sugary cereal every morning, or have a frozen dinner every night, or drink a diet soda with every meal. But you can enjoy a bowl of ice cream every now and again. You can treat yourself to dinner at a Chinese restaurant. You can enjoy your food — but, yes, in moderation.

The controversies surrounding many processed foods and their ingredients are often exaggerated. However, lack of scientific evidence to support fear doesn’t mean you’re free to eat as much junk food as you want. A processed food is a processed food — it’s higher in added and artificial ingredients than any whole food you can buy. Regardless of what’s causing potential harm, a very minimal portion of your diet should include highly processed junk. There’s a big difference between “sometimes” and “never.” Don’t diet in absolutes. Eat well, treat yourself, mind your science, and live healthier — always.

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