Even the health conscious among us occasionally succumb to the temptation of using packaged foods. They’re quick to prepare. They’re easy. They’re convenient. At the end of a long day, we may not have the energy to cook a real meal, so we reach for something off the supermarket shelf to take home that looks healthy.
But is it healthy?
Check the food labels on the back of their packaging and find out lists of ingredients, you will find the most egregious health offenders in terms of food additives.
Reading a Food Label
Prepared foods manufactured in the U.S. began posting nutrition facts in response to the Fair Packaging and Labeling Act, a statute concerned not with food safety but with fairness in interstate commerce. It wasn’t until 1990, with the passage of the Nutrition Labeling and Education Act, that food labeling was required to be consistent with health facts.
Today’s nutrition labels focus on how the food you’re purchasing fits into the overall context of a healthy daily diet with information about what serving size it’s supposed to represent; the calories it contains; its fat content and where those fats come from; its cholesterol, sodium, carbohydrate and protein profiles; and what vitamins and minerals the food contains. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that the Percent Daily Value, which they determine, also be included on the labeling by way of comparison.
Labels also contain lists of ingredients, listed in descending order of weight, and it is here that you will find the most egregious health offenders in terms of food additives.
Fat, Cholesterol, Sodium and Sugar
Three of the most important things to look at on the food label are the total fat, and what percentage of the food is saturated fat versus trans fat; the total amount of sodium in the food; and the total amount of sugar in the food which you’ll find as a category under carbohydrates.
Trans fatty acids are fats made through a process called hydrogenation, which converts liquid fats into solids. Trans fats have been linked to low-density lipoproteins (LDL), the so-called “bad” cholesterol. Health experts recommend avoiding dietary trans fats when at all possible and keeping your saturated fat intake low.
Your liver is very effective at making the cholesterol your body needs to produce hormones and cell membranes. You don’t need additional dietary sources of cholesterol. But all animal products contain some amount of cholesterol so unless you’re a vegetarian, you’re going to consume some in your diet. Cholesterol has been conclusively linked to the development of atherosclerosis disease. Limit the amount you eat in your diet.
Sodium is an essential nutrient, a substance that is necessary for life that the body cannot manufacture by itself. Sodium is required for muscular contraction on the cellular level, as well as for the proper conduction of neuronal impulses and the digestion of protein. Because sodium is so essential for life, your body has developed a complicated regulatory system to safeguard its levels. Yet too much sodium can lead to cardiovascular disease and high blood pressure. It’s important to keep your daily sodium consumption within 100 percent of the recommended daily value.
Unfortunately the sugar entry on your nutrition label does not break out high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) from cane or beet sugar. Most of the sugar in processed foods comes from HFCS; in fact, on average, Americans eat over 40 pounds of HFCS a year. Fructose is much more quickly absorbed by the body than sucrose, and many nutritionists and public health experts believe that HFCS consumption is at the heart of the nation’s current obesity and diabetes epidemics.
In addition to the nutrients listed on the nutrient labels, a number of additives can be found in processed foods. When present, these will be listed as ingredients.
Artificial sweeteners were invented to give foods the taste of sugar without the calories of sugar. But many of them have been shown to increase the risk of cancer in laboratory animals. Additionally, they may be linked to hyperactivity, allergies and even certain autoimmune disorders. The worst culprit is aspartame, found in Nutrasweet and Equal, which is responsible for 75 percent of the adverse reactions to food additives reported to the FDA. Artificial sweeteners Maltitol, Xylitol, and Sorbitol are absorbed very slowly by the digestive system, which often leads to abdominal cramping and diarrhea. Other sugar substitutes are saccharin and sucralose.