Eating clean and healthful foods can be a daunting task in today’s complex and highly manipulative food environment. The patience required to read and decipher ingredient lists that often include substances that require a Ph.D to pronounce can be discouraging to even the most knowledgeable of consumers. However, building upon the food label sleuthing skills we have already started to develop, we can identify a few ‘key’ ingredients to look for when grocery shopping that will ensure that we don’t unknowingly cause any unnecessary harm to our physical and emotional well-being. In no particular order, here are a few of the foods to avoid– some of the biggest health offenders that are commonly used in the food production process or are slowly working their way into our fresh food system.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
Many consider the consumption of sugar laden, nutrient deficient soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) to be the driving force in the obesity epidemic. However, millions continue to periodically ‘splurge’ on soda or purchase their child’s favorite fruit punch without fully realizing the consequences of their actions. HFCSs are engineered to contain a higher concentration of fructose, a simple sugar that imparts a sweeter taste and allows food manufacturers to reduce input cost while maintaining consumer ‘taste preference’. However, this chemical manipulation of sugar has some very severe consequences that can dramatically impair the body’s ability to properly function. For instance, fructose does not stimulate the release of insulin, a hormone that directly modulates food intake. Also, fructose does not ignite satiety signals in the brain, which may encourage us to consume more energy than our body needs. Finally, fructose contributes to the production of long-chain fatty acids and, therefore, facilitates the formation of triglycerides, the blood lipids that contribute to the formation of adipose (fat) tissue.
If the metabolic harm caused by HFCS wasn’t bad enough, most research, including this study from the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, has shown that increased consumption of HFCS sweetened beverages has been associated with a decrease in the consumption of ‘healthy’ beverages like milk and water, which may further jeopardize our health.
There is an abundance of anecdotal information available regarding MSG and its impact upon the body, but there is little hard evidence or definitive answers as to the role MSG should play in a healthy diet. That being said, and without going so far as to say that eating MSG is deadly, here is some information to help you better decide how the presence of MSG may impact your food decisions.
Monosodium glutamate, a.k.a. MSG, is a non-essential amino acid that is utilized by industrial food manufacturers to enhance, balance, and blend flavor in order to improve the overall taste experience. And, although MSG is classified by the USDA as generally recognized as safe (GRAS), studies have found that certain people may be more sensitive to a complex of symptoms often referred to as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’, or CRS. The symptoms of CRS include: numbness, headache, migraine, palpitations, tightness, weakness, aching, flushing, sweating, fasciculation, lacrimation, syncope, dizziness, shudder attacks, paresthesias, arrhythmias and tachycardia, which have been suggested to be the result of stimulation of peripheral receptors of the nervous system, the conversion of glutamate to acetylcholine via the TCA cycle, a manifestation of esophageal irritation, excessive sodium intake, B6 deficiency or histamine intoxication. The consumption of MSG has also been associated with an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors that raises your risk for heart disease, diabetes and stroke, and the prevalence of obesity in populations that consume it in the greatest quantities. It’s important to know that food labels do not always note the presence of MSG; check out this list of hidden names of MSG from Fooducate that may appear on your food labels. Some examples include hydrolyzed whey and casein protein, autolyzed yeast and yeast extract.
According to the fine folks at the Mayo Clinic, “the only way to prevent a reaction is to avoid foods containing MSG.”
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are organisms whose genetic material has been altered in a way that does not occur naturally which may be used in biological and medical research, production of pharmaceutical drugs, experimental medicine or agricultural production. This process involves the mutation, insertion or deletion of specific genes to study the mechanisms of human disease and fundamental biological processes, in addition the widely publicized production of commercial crops that possess desirable traits like pesticide resistance, specific environmental adaptations, and improved shelf life. Since we are here to learn and grow in our nutritional understanding, we will spend our time discussing how the consumption of genetically modified foods may impact our health (but to learn more about why GMOs are a disaster for our planet too, check out this great post about the economic arguments against GMOs).
According to the World Health Organization, the three main concerns are the tendency for GMOs to provoke allergic reactions, gene transfer and outcrossing. However, the American Academy of Environmental Medicine provides a few more specific and highly concerning risks associated with the consumption of GM foods, including: infertility, immune dysregulation, accelerated aging, dysregulation of genes associated with cholesterol synthesis, insulin regulation, cell signaling, protein formation, and changes in the liver, kidney, spleen and gastrointestinal system. I don’t think much more needs to be said, but I feel that it is important to mention that, according to the International Journal of Biological Sciences, the side effects of GMO consumption may be sex- and dose-dependent and it would be difficult to make generalized statements concerning the toxic effects of all GM foods as they are inherently different in their structure and function.Currently GMOs are not labeled, although many labeling measures are working their way through the legal system.
Whether you are most concerned about organics, GMOs, or other food additives, the best thing you can do it educate yourself about their potential impact, which will help us develop a more mindful approach to diet and nutrition.