What’s Lurking in Your Food?

By Parul Kharod

Food is our fuel, and is supposed to be nourishing to our body; but there are some foods that are toxic and cause a great deal of harm. In this age of busy lives and lack of time for cooking, the grocery stores are filled with foods that are ready-to-eat or require minimum preparation. However, there is a negative side to this convenience. Added as ingredients in processed packaged foods, there are chemicals, additives, and preservatives, which have shown to cause serious health issues including cancer. It is advisable to avoid these as much as possible. The following list shows a few of many chemicals that are hidden in our food.

Artificial Colors

All modern food dyes are derived from petroleum, a carcinogen that is linked to Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and chromosomal damage in children. The artificial colors Blue #1 and #2, Green #3, Red #3, Red #40, and Yellow #5 and #6, and other such artificial colors have been linked to thyroid, adrenal, bladder, kidney, and brain cancers. Sadly majority of these colors are found in foods marketed to kids. Foods such as sugary colorful cereals, fruit snacks, fruit punch, drink flavor packets, popsicles, flavored yogurt, and all other foods that come in vibrant colors are loaded with these harmful dyes.

Artificial Flavors

These are synthetic flavors made from proprietary chemicals, and are used to improve the taste of packaged foods such as boxed cereals, candy, soda, and flavor packets for beverages. The ingredients may include synthetic chemicals, solvents, and preservatives such as Azodicarbonamide, Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA), propylene glycol, Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), parabens, sulfites, butane, disodium iosinate, disodium guanylate, calcium propionate, and many other such chemical concoctions. Majority of these have shown to cause asthma, cancer, nerve damage, headaches, seizures, and heart problems.

Artificial Sweeteners

Aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal), saccharin (Sweet'N Low, SugarTwin), and sucralose (Splenda) are used abundantly because they have zero calories. Although they have no calories, artificial sweeteners have been shown to contribute to weight gain as they trick the brain's natural hormone responses to hunger and fullness. Research finds they stimulate your appetite, increase sugar cravings, and promote fat storage and weight gain. Studies have shown that drinking diet sodas leads to increased risk of diabetes by causing insulin resistance. Artificial sweeteners are present in all foods that claim to have low calories.

Enriched bleached flour

Majority of snack foods such as crackers, cookies, packaged cakes, muffin mixes, pretzels, and other such foods are made with white enriched bleached flour. This ingredient is a result of over-processing a grain. When a whole grain (such as whole wheat) is refined, most of its nutrients are sucked out in an effort to extend its shelf life. Both the bran and germ are removed, and therefore all the fiber, vitamins, and minerals are lost. This refined flour only has simple starch which can get absorbed fast and cause a sharp rise in blood sugars. This can increase risk of diabetes, increase triglycerides, and cause fatty liver.

High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)

HFCS is a cheap sweetener and therefore used abundantly in all packaged products. Like trans fats, it raises bad cholesterol levels and can lead to diabetes. It can also cause problems for those having digestive issues related to IBS.

Partially hydrogenated oils (Trans Fats)

Trans fats are a man-made creation to enhance shelf life of products. Do not be fooled by the nutrition facts labels that say “0 grams of trans fat". Zero does not mean zero. Per FDA rules, companies are allowed to say zero if the amount is below a certain number. Trans fats are called the worst type of fats because they increase the body's LDL (“bad") cholesterol while decreasing HDL (“good") cholesterol. They clog the arteries and increase the risk of heart disease, diabetes, and many other health problems. Partially hydrogenated oils are found in most baked products such as cookies, crackers, cakes, and even peanut butter. Read the list of ingredients and try to buy things without any trans fats.

Sodium Benzoate and Potassium Benzoate

These chemicals are used as a preservative in salad dressings and carbonated beverages. It is important to know that benzene is a known carcinogen and may cause damage our DNA. It has also been linked to thyroid damage.

These preservatives are found in processed meats like bacon, hot dogs and all lunch meats and deli meats. They are shown to cause cancer, especially colon cancer. They also increase risk of heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Titanium Dioxide

Microscopic particles of titanium dioxide are sometimes used to make white foods even whiter and brighter, however it is not always labeled. It is commonly found in yogurt, cottage cheese, powdered sugar, candy, chewing gum, pudding, drink mixes, marshmallows, and mayonnaise. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide are specifically linked to cancer, gastrointestinal inflammation and changes to digestive cell structure. Because they are so small, nanoparticles are extremely mobile. Once inside the body, they seem to have unlimited access to all tissues and organs, including the brain and therefore are able to cause damage to all cells.

It is evident that package processed foods have a lot of hidden ingredients that can cause serious health problems. So from now on, don't get fooled by what's on the front of the package. Read the list of ingredients. The shorter the list, the healthier the product. Here's a simple rule to keep in mind – buy things that have less than five ingredients. If you feel like you have accidentally picked up a chemistry text book, put that package back and walk away! Your body and mind will thank you.


Parul Kharod, MS, RD, LDN is a registered dietitian and licensed nutritionist and works as a Clinical Dietitian with Outpatient Nutrition Services at WakeMed Hospital in Cary and Raleigh. She can be reached at parulkharod@gmail.com