I recently had dinner with a friend who is fit, active, healthy and tries to eat well; he’s doing everything right. We got to talking about food labels and marketing claims. He told me that he reads the labels and that he thinks he’s making good healthy food choices.

It soon became apparent that he was reading the product claims on the front labels and occasionally, the nutrition facts label, but not the list of ingredients. I challenged him to read the ingredient list on the foods in his cabinets.  We pulled out the first item handy, Progresso Bread Crumbs, and I showed him the high fructose corn syrup and trans fats in the ingredient list.

We discovered 95% of the food in his house contained at least one, sometimes two or even all three, of the most harmful food additives: high fructose corn syrup, trans fats and MSG. It was a challenge to find anything in a box, bag, plastic bottle or jar that did not have one of these unhealthy additives, even product labeled as “natural.”

Eating whole unprocessed foods is best, so I always recommend you stick to the outside aisles of the supermarket and avoid packaged and processed food.  But for many of us, it is simply not possible to avoid all processed foods completely. When you must buy prepared foods, how can you make the best choices?

While it’s easy to believe food manufacturers’ marketing claims, the only way to know if you’re making good food choices and know exactly what you are really eating is to read the ingredient list. Avoiding harmful additives could add years to your life.

Trans Fats or Partially Hydrogenated Oil

New York City made headlines when it banned all trans fats from foods. California then became the first state to do so.  Many European countries have done the same, or passed legislation for future elimination. What is it about trans fats that is so concerning? What led the National Academy of Science to say there is no safe level of trans fat consumption and to call for a full ban of its use at the city, state and country level?

Trans fats are made when a hydrogen atom is added to unsaturated fat. During this process, hydrogen gas bubbles through the oil in the presence of a nickel catalyst. Originally just an interesting science experiment, the result became attractive to food manufacturers looking to increase profits. Trans fats don’t spoil as readily as other oils, they don’t break down when heated repeatedly, and they can turn a liquid oil into a solid, which makes transport easier, and offers a cheaper substitute to solid animal fat.

The fast food industry saw the appeal, and almost every major chain found a use: Dunkin Donuts used them to fry donuts and McDonald’s used them to fry its french fries. (They and most others have recently eliminated trans fats due to public pressure).  Margarine, baked and snack goods sales benefited from increasing concern over the use of butter and lard several decades ago before healthy fats were fully understood and there was a desire to shift to a vegetable-based oil product. But as trans fat consumption increased radically, researchers grew concerned about its effect on health.

Awareness of the harm of trans fats began in the 1990s, though a study done in the U.K. as far back as 1981 raised some questions.  In 1993, Harvard concluded that the intake of partially hydrogenated oils increased the likelihood of a heart attack. That study suggested that replacing just 2% of energy from trans fats with healthy unsaturated fats could reduce the risk of coronary heart disease by a third.

In 1999, a joint study by Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital reported that  “at least 30,000 and as many as 100,000 cardiac deaths a year in the United States could be prevented if people replaced trans fats with healthier non-hydrogenated” oils.  The New England Journal of Medicine reported that same year that trans fats are directly linked to the development of diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

Today we know that trans fats increase LDL, the low-density lipoproteins, especially the smaller denser particles that we now know are more damaging to the arteries. At the same time, they reduce HDL, the high-density lipoproteins that are responsible for taking bad cholesterol and waste that needs to be returned to the liver for processing and disposal. (For more detail, see the chapter on cholesterol.) They also create inflammation, which has been shown to lead to heart disease, stroke, diabetes and many other chronic conditions. Trans fats have also been linked to obesity and insulin resistance as well as Alzheimer’s disease.

At one point, the FDA estimated 95% of prepared cookies, 100% of crackers and 80% of frozen breakfast products contained trans fats.  They have also said that the average American consumes 5.8 grams of trans fats a day. While some companies are shifting their manufacturing processes, the majority of foods still contain some amount of trans fat.  (It breaks my heart every year when the Girl Scouts come calling because I’d love to support their cause, but their cookies all include trans fats, so typically, I make a donation and tell them to keep the cookies.)

When you eat at bakeries, restaurants, schools and cafeterias there is no way to monitor trans fat presence, so it’s likely that you’re consuming them. Trans fats do occur naturally in some meat and dairy products, so it’s hard to avoid them completely.

The American Heart Association recommends that no more than 1% of your calorie energy come from trans fats. If you eat a 2,000 calorie a day diet, that is 20 calories, or less than two grams of trans fats a day. Given what you likely ingest through your daily meat and dairy consumption, you are most likely reaching or exceeding that amount through natural sources.

Prior to 2006, when it was required to list trans fats on labels, it was hard to tell which foods contained them. Now it’s a little easier, but you still cannot depend on truth in labeling with regard to trans fats. In fact, many products claim to be trans fat free while still containing trans fats. Portion sizes under .5g per serving do not require listing on labels. (In Canada, it’s .2g.) So some manufacturers simply reduce portion sizes in order to meet the minimum requirements, but continue to process foods the same way.

The only way to know for sure is to read the label and to look for partially hydrogenated oils on the ingredient list.  Despite the fact that the FDA has banned them saying they are unsafe, they remain in many foods today. It may surprise you where you find them: in addition to the obvious breads, cookies and crackers, I found them in a jar of marinated artichoke hearts!

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Almost everyone knows they should avoid MSG, so food manufacturers have gotten smart about hiding it. But it astounds me how many times I see it listed openly as monosodium glutamate in the ingredient list of a common kitchen staple.  It’s in so many foods because it’s a flavor enhancer that leads you to want to eat more, and which is exactly what food manufacturers want.

MSG is a neurotoxin that excites the brain. In addition to being toxic, it’s addictive. It can cause brain damage, lead to behavior disorders, learning disabilities, endocrine and reproductive disorders and neurodegenerative disease. It has been shown to lead to obesity regardless of caloric intake; it acts on the pancreas to secrete insulin and stimulate hunger, and if you are taking calcium blockers for high blood pressure, MSG acts as a calcium channel opener, counteracting that medication.

It’s in soups, salad dressings and dips, Hamburger Helper, frozen foods, prepared noodles and potato chips, it’s the secret ingredient at many big name fast food and chain restaurants, and it’s sold as the flavor-enhancing product, Accent. It’s not just a Chinese restaurant concern, though it gained attention after many people sensitive to its effects came down with headaches, dizziness and chest pains after eating it in Chinese food.

Glutamic acids are amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) commonly found in foods such as tomatoes, milk and mushrooms. They are also found in our cells and function as a neurotransmitter involved in a variety of brain functions. When we eat these foods, we break down the natural or sometimes called “bound” glutamic acid and it is delivered to receptors in our brain and body. It’s not harmful and in fact performs a valuable function.

But when glutamic acid is made in a factory, the “bound” glutamic acid in corn, molasses, beets or wheat is broken down by one of several processes: It is hydrolyzed, autolyzed, modified or fermented using powerful chemicals or specially engineered bacterias. (Most of the world’s production is made using bacterial fermentation, often with genetically engineered bacterias, but autolyzed and hydrolyzed processes are rampant in food products as well.)

It then becomes refined into a sugar-like white crystal form that is 78.2% glutamate, 12.2% sodium and 9.6% water. Anything 78%-79% processed free glutamic acid (MSG) will be listed as monosodium glutamate on the label. Other MSG-containing ingredients are listed in their technical form such as hydrolyzed vegetable proteins, autolyzed yeast, hydrolyzed yeast, yeast extract, soy extracts and protein isolate. Labels reveal that these forms are pervasive in the vast majority of foods we buy and eat.

So what’s the difference between the naturally occurring monosodium glutamate and the processed form?

Unprocessed glutamic acid is L-glutamic acid. When the processed version is created in factories, it is both L-glutamic acid and D-glutamic acid, along with pyroglutamic acid and a number of impurities. Several of the impurities such as mono and dichloro propanols and heterocyclic amines are carcinogenic. But even more importantly, our bodies are made to process and utilize naturally occurring L-glutamic acid, not the created D-glutamic acid that results from factory processing.

The FDA considers MSG to be naturally occurring since the basic ingredient is found in nature. But naturally occurring doesn’t mean safe. Arsenic is naturally occurring but you wouldn’t want to eat it. The factory version of MSG causes sensitivities and toxicity in people, as our bodies have never had to process this form before. Look out for all forms of monosodium glutamate including autolyzed or hydrolyzed yeast, yeast or soy extract and protein isolate on your ingredient lists and avoid them all.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

Because we already talked about HFCS in The Truth About Sugar article, I’ll keep this summary brief.

Research has shown that fructose inhibits our leptin signaling and directly leads to obesity, type-2 diabetes and a myriad of other conditions including heart disease. It alters our sweetness set points and interferes with satiety signals, leading us to eat more. We need to minimize fructose in our diets because fructose cannot be metabolized by the cells and must be metabolized by the liver; excess fructose consumption taxes our liver.

But high fructose corn syrup is not only a harmful form of fructose; it often contains mercury, it’s made from corn syrup that is derived from genetically modified corn, and it adds to the overload of corn already rampant in our diets as corn has shifted from a vegetable into a grain.

High fructose corn syrup is commonly found in bread and bread products, ketchup, tomato and spaghetti sauce, peanut butter, jelly, salad dressing, crackers and cookies and myriad other items including seafood cocktail sauce, barbecue sauce, sweet pickles or relish … just about everything!

When I had dinner with my friend, he wanted to make a special turkey burger recipe for me. Searching for bread without high fructose corn syrup can be quite a challenge in many traditional grocery stores. On a recent trip, I found only one offering out of 28 breads that was made without it. But finding high fructose corn syrup -free bread products such as hamburger buns and hotdog rolls is almost impossible at a traditional grocery store.

It takes a trip to the organic section of my local grocery store (I am fortunate to have access to Hannaford, which has a great selection); Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to find products made without high fructose corn syrup. If your regular grocery store doesn’t carry non-high fructose corn syrup options, ask that they do. Or go without the bun.

Most of us consume large amounts of these three unhealthy food additives without knowing it. While we can’t control what’s in the food we eat in a restaurant or cafeteria, we can control what we cook at home. Once you start reading food labels, you’ll be surprised what’s actually in the products you’re buying. The good news is that there are healthy versions of every product out there that still taste great, if you take the time to look for them.


To your wellness and health: your true wealth!



Author: Inger Pols is the Editor of the New England Health Advisory and Author/Creator, Finally Make It Happen, the proven process to get what you want. Get a free special report on The Truth About Sugar: It’s Not All Equal at www.IngerPols.com

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