Ingredients to watch for in packaged “health” foods

Harmful ingredients in packaged food

When you pay extra to buy organic cereal, you’re making a good investment in your health, right?

No, not necessarily. Don’t let the eco-chic packaging fool you.

You may already strive to steer clear of ingredients like high fructose corn syrup, MSG and partially hydrogenated oils – but have you heard that carrageenan, a common additive in vegan products, may cause intestinal ulcerations? Most people probably haven’t, considering the ever-growing boom of almond milk.

We don’t intend to throw you into grocery-store paralysis, but before you pay a premium for food in the name of health, you may want to look out for these potentially harmful ingredients

Carrageenan: thickening agent extracted from red seaweed

Studies link this additive to serious digestive issues, yet it appears in plenty of dairy, dairy-alternative and other packaged “health” products. Some sources also show weak positive correlations between carrageenan and breast cancer; others assert that the small amount of carrageenan in foodstuffs doesn’t qualify it as a carcinogen.

Sunflower, corn and soybean oils: vegetable oils containing high levels of omega-6

Eating the oil of a sunflower? That sounds downright idyllic. But “plant-derived” doesn’t always translate to “healthy.” In fact, studies show that consuming these oils may increase the risk of chronic diseases including rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s. This concerns the oils’ high levels of omega-6 fatty acids. While omega-6 isn’t inherently harmful, it may lead to chronic inflammation when it surpasses your body’s levels of omega-3.

Brown rice syrup: still sugar

“Brown rice” might make this syrup sound healthy, but it’s still a high-calorie sweetener that can spike your blood sugar. Another concern around brown rice syrup involves its potential arsenic content, which could lead to lower IQs among children, heart disease and cancer.

Natural flavor: a potentially misleading term

The term “natural flavor” is a catchall for taste-enhancing additives that, at some point, came from a plant or animal source. But in the process of concocting the final substance, food chemists may have added artificial, GMO, non-organic or other potentially harmful elements. Since “natural flavor” could refer to thousands of different chemical compositions, it’s tricky to say whether you should avoid them. Just keep in mind that “natural flavors” aren’t necessarily “natural.” Plus, if you’re trying to eat vegan or vegetarian, you may want to avoid this ingredient, as it often includes unlisted animal products.

Soy: probably beneficial – unless you’re allergic

Plenty of studies point to soy’s potential benefits, such as its promising implications for lowering the risk of chronic disease. Others call out both the potential downfalls and advantages of soy’s estrogen-mimicking compounds, known as phytoestrogens. While some evidence suggests that phytoestrogens may help prevent breast cancer, studies also indicate that they can cause reproductive issues like male infertility. Soy allergies are fairly common as well, so if you get a stomach ache or a rash after eating soy, keep an eye out for it on nutrition labels.

Canola oil: the controversial product of a multimillion-dollar industry

Canola oil costs about half the price of olive oil to produce, so food manufacturers use it in almost everything: prepared lunches, soups, granola and more. Some sources defend canola oil on account of its low saturated fat content; other popular opinions call it toxic. This study links the man-made lipid to Alzheimer’s, but the experiment subjected mice, not humans

What do most of these ingredients have in common? Our ancestors didn’t eat them. These cost-effective fillers arose in the modern era to maximize the profits on industrialized food. That said, this article by no means provides an exhaustive list of potentially harmful ingredients, nor should it scare you away from eating a granola bar. We can’t conclusively say whether consuming or refraining from any of these ingredients will transform your health, but we do hope this list empowers you to make more informed purchases.  

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