All processed foods are not created equal — especially those that claim to be healthy. Here’s what to watch out for on a product’s label and where to turn for better alternatives.
It’s the end of an exhausting day, and I am at the mercy of my icebox. A pricey frozen pizza that I purchased at my local food co-op is calling to me. The package assures me its contents are “natural” and “organic,” but the stiff, frosty pie seems anything but as I slip it into the oven. Even my dog, a virtual begging machine, leaves the room. I am alone with my indiscretion.
I take perverse comfort in the fact that most of my health-minded friends frequently use processed foods to get through the week. And plenty of food companies want to lend my demographic a hand with wholesome-sounding options like soy protein bars, veggie puffs and multigrain cheese curls. But Erica Wides, an NYC-based chef and host of a radio show called Let’s Get Real about discerning real food from fake food, says these products are “food doppelgangers” — fake stuff designed to look and taste like real sustenance.
So what’s a healthy eater with a busy calendar and an occasional weakness for frozen pizza to do? Some processed-food ingredients are more benign than others. But without a chemistry degree, how do you tell the difference? To answer that question, we consulted with a number of experts to break down the most common ingredients in a number of popular, so-called healthy processed foods and help you find the best alternatives.
Most people think of veggie burgers as inherently nourishing, but too many patties are light on vegetables and rely instead on processed soy to achieve a meatlike texture and flavor. Some ingredients to watch out for include:
Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP): This is most often made up of soy flour that’s been mixed with water, pressurized and extruded into foodlike shapes. TVP sneaks into a huge variety of foods, especially vegetarian options, because it is cheap and chewy (like meat) and it easily absorbs flavor-enhancing chemicals, such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), that mask its processed-soy flavor.
Caramel Color: A brown food coloring that in many cases is made by heating sugar, malt syrup or molasses with ammonia, which yields toxins that have been shown to cause cancer in mice. Food makers use caramel color to make a food look more appetizing; a TVP-based veggie burger, for example, is naturally gray. Ray Winger, PhD, spokesperson for the Institute of Food Technologists, notes that brown coloring made from sugar and ammonia is a step up from old-fashioned brown food dye, which was made from coal tar. But it’s still not something most healthy eaters would knowingly embrace.
Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein: This flavor enhancer is made by boiling a plant-based protein (usually soy, corn or wheat) in hydrochloric acid and then adding sodium hydroxide, which breaks down a protein into its component parts (including various amino acids). The extracted liquid, which often contains MSG, is used to make processed foods taste more “real.”
Better Options: If you’re shopping for a veggie burger, the first ingredient should be a whole food, meaning either a vegetable, like mushrooms, a legume, like black beans, or even a whole grain, like barley. Even simpler? Try grilling portobello mushroom caps or thick slices of eggplant and zucchini. If you’re feeling inspired, consider making a bunch of your own veggie burgers and freezing them for a quick meal.
Most healthy shoppers know to steer clear of hardcore junk-food offenders. But the snacks they’re prone to pick up instead — rice crackers, multigrain chips, pita snacks — are often filled with highly refined grains, such as rice flour, potato flakes and potato starch, which can trigger blood-sugar surges and inflammation even faster than white flour. Other ingredients to watch out for include:
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG): A flavor enhancer that imparts an umami (rich, savory or meatlike) taste. Some whole foods, such as tomatoes, mushrooms and dried fish, have naturally occurring umami flavor, but most MSG used today is artificial: Scientists grow a strain of bacteria that excretes glutamic acid, which is processed and converted to MSG. It all comes down to cost: MSG made from bacteria is a “fraction of the price” of MSG extracted from mushrooms or tomato paste, says Winger. But safety is a concern; many studies suggest MSG is a neurotoxin. If you want the savory deliciousness of umami without the chemical makeup, look for foods flavored with mushrooms, seaweed or tomato paste.
Disodium Inosinate and Guanylate: Both are additives that, like MSG, enhance the flavor of umami. Winger explains that because these flavor enhancers amplify the taste of salt, food makers looking to capitalize on the low-sodium trend are using more disodium inosinate and guanylate than ever before. Disodium inosinate (also known as inosine monophosphate or IMP) is considered safe, but is often used in conjunction with MSG, so keep that in mind if you are sensitive to MSG. Also, MSG and MSG-like substances can stimulate the appetite, says integrative nutritionist Kathie Swift, MS, RD: “The MSG family is a flavor crutch that keeps us coming back for more.”
Vegetable(s) Oils: The most common are soy oil, canola oil and cottonseed oil. If it’s not organic, most of it is genetically modified and extracted with hexane, a chemical that is more toxic than the acetone used in fingernail-polish remover, says integrative and functional medicine nutritionist Julie Starkel, MS, MBA, RD. So why are they in nearly every package of chips? Food companies, even those making so-called healthy foods, love refined vegetable oils because they are cheap and extend shelf life.
Yellow No. 6: Indispensable to the food industry because consumers expect things like corn chips to be yellow. The dye turns the chips yellow (they are naturally beige) and ensures they stay yellow under stressful conditions, such as temperature and light fluctuations. The dye can cause tumors, however, and even industry-sponsored tests show that it may contain carcinogens. Organic-food makers use natural spices like turmeric and annatto to dye foods yellow.
Better Options: If you crave crunch, skip the chips and buy a bag of organic, non-GMO popcorn seasoned with sea salt and olive oil (or better yet, make your own). You could also try kale chips, sea veggie snack chips, or even lentil- or bean-based chips, says Swift, but read the ingredient lists closely. Swift goes one step further and makes her own veggie chips in a dehydrator and flavors them with herbs and spices. And don’t overlook tried-and-true crunchy snack options like veggies, nuts and seeds.
“Aside from a doughnut, cereal is possibly the worst way to start your day,” says Kristin Wartman, a certified nutrition educator. “It spikes your insulin and leaves you feeling hungry an hour later.” The vast majority of cereals on the shelf consist primarily of refined grains laced with sugar and additives. Other ingredients to watch out for include:
Wheat Gluten: This ubiquitous ingredient adds texture, elasticity and protein to a variety of processed foods. In particular, cereal makers use it as glue to bind flakes together. Unfortunately, wheat gluten can cause inflammation and may play a role in everything from weight gain and skin breakouts to the onset of digestive and autoimmune disorders.
Defatted Wheat Germ: This is a byproduct of wheat-germ oil. After the oil is extracted from wheat germ (typically using a solvent like hexane), the remaining wheat germ is added to nutrient-poor foods, such as flake cereals. Cereal makers like it because it is relatively high in protein, which boosts what is basically a nutrient-poor processed food.
Calcium Caseinate: A spray-dried milk protein. During its processing, Wartman explains, a potentially healthy fat (milk fat) oxidizes and, in the process, generates free radicals. As Wartman reminds us, “the only kind of dietary cholesterol that is actually bad for us is the oxidized kind.”
BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene): A chemical used in packaging to extend shelf life. Processed-food makers use BHT to keep rancidity at bay, says Starkel, but it comes with potential health risks, including a possible increased risk of cancer. There are natural means to extend a food’s shelf life, such as infusing the food with natural antioxidants (like vitamin E oils) or vacuum packing the food to prevent oxygen exposure and to slow bacterial growth. But those options are more expensive. “People complain when food costs more,” says Starkel. “We expect food to be cheap and food makers deliver to our expectations.”
Better Options: Eat a whole-foods-based breakfast that contains both fat and protein, like hard-boiled eggs or organic, plain, full-fat Greek yogurt topped with walnuts and berries. If you’re still hankering for cereal, consider a nut-and-seed-rich organic granola that is relatively low in sugar and that contains only whole-kernel grains. Or, skip the grains altogether and top berries, nuts and shaved coconut with almond milk. (For more ideas on what to eat for breakfast, see “Healthy Breakfasts for Busy Mornings” at ELmag.com/healthybreakfasts.)
Marketed to fitness enthusiasts and wannabes alike, these brightly colored concoctions are often filled with processed sugars, artificial flavors and all kinds of chemical additives. If you’re in the market for a sport or hydration drink, watch out for these ingredients:
High-Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS): Basically a sweeter, less-expensive, more processed version of sugar. To make HFCS, companies start with cornstarch, which is inexpensive thanks to government corn subsidies, and break it down to its component sugars. The result is a sweetener that has shimmied its way into nearly every food category and, say many experts, greatly contributed to the epidemic of obesity and diabetes in this country.
Guar Gum: Just one of a number of plant gums that make food thicker and smoother. Thicker liquids can suspend particles (usually seen in salad dressings where the “herbs and spices” appear to float in the bottle). Although the gums are technically natural, made from bushes, trees, seaweed and bacteria, they haven’t been extensively tested for safety.
Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO): An emulsifier (made from either corn or soy) that can make drinks such as sports drinks or soda appear either cloudy or clear. BVO has been banned in a number of countries because it’s both a flame retardant and a potential hormone disrupter. Signs you’ve gotten a toxic dose include headache, fatigue and memory loss. Studies show that an adult would have to consume quite a bit to see this effect (2 to 4 liters of a soda), but what constitutes a harmful effect in children is less clear.
Better Options: After a light workout, water will do the trick. If it’s a moderate workout, a banana can help restore electrolyte balance. Or you can make your own sports drink by diluting organic juice with plenty of water and then adding a pinch of sea salt, says Swift. The combination of liquid and sodium replaces the water and salt lost during vigorous exercise.
Energy in a bar — what’s more tempting than that? The problem is that the word “energy” in high-tech food jargon simply means the food has calories, not that it is going to give you boundless energy. Some ingredients to watch out for include:
Fractionated Palm Kernel Oil: Fractionating is a mechanical process that separates the solid fat and manipulates it to raise the melting point. Fractionated palm kernel oil is a sign of a highly processed food, but it’s not as bad for you as hydrogenated oils, whose chemical structure has been changed.
Rice, Whey or Soy Crisps: This ingredient is exploited to add bulk, texture, crunch and protein to bars. All crisps — or “extruded particulates,” as the food industry calls them — are highly refined, digest quickly and cause surges in blood sugar that research has linked to diabetes, heart disease and obesity.
Organic Brown Rice Syrup (OBRS): A sweetener that has replaced high-fructose corn syrup in many healthy foods, brown rice’s health halo was tarnished last year when Dartmouth researchers found arsenic in organic brown rice syrup. Eating only two to three energy bars a day exposes adults to potentially unsafe levels of arsenic (about 10 micrograms); however, the line separating safe and unsafe arsenic levels for children is not clear.
Better Options: Look for energy bars with a short ingredient list made up of mostly whole foods (dates, figs, nuts, etc.). A less expensive option is to make your own. Wartman’s favorite recipe involves puréeing dates, seeds and nuts in a food processor, then flattening the lump on a cutting board, slicing it into bars, and popping it in the fridge to solidify.