For the most part, we all understand how to cook with real food. We typically don’t add non-food ingredients into our home-cooked meals. Our avocados aren’t made with green dye. We don’t sprinkle stearoyl lactylate into our soups and breads. The problem isn’t typically home cooked meals using fresh ingredients; the problem is the food-like substances, chemicals, food additives, preservatives, food dyes, and artificial sweeteners that food companies add to their food. But if you don’t have stearoyl lactylate in your cupboard, then you probably shouldn’t eat it in the food that you buy either.
For so long, most people were unaware of the chemicals added to our foods and how the hormones, plastics, and toxins that we congest on a day to day basis are harming our bodies. Now, many of us conscious consumers have learned to avoid breads containing yoga mats and french fries with Silly Putty in them. But sometimes processed foods still find their way into our kitchens.
I’m not saying that ALL processed and packaged foods are all bad. People have been processing food virtually from day one. Until refrigeration, it was the only way we had of preserving perishables to eat later. Cooking is a form of processing, so are curing, drying, smoking, fermenting—the list goes on and on. Whole foods processed using traditional methods and ingredients are not something we need to avoid. Some processing actually improves food by making its nutrients more available or potent. We just have to understand which processed foods we can safely eat and which ones we should avoid.
I want to walk you through what processed foods to avoid so that when you do find yourself deciding on whether or not to buy that box of goodies you can make better choices.
Avoid the following…
- Anything with ingredients that are difficult to pronounce. These products surely contain substances that belong in a chemistry set, not in your body. Try saying stearoyl lactylate or butylated hydroxytoluene with ease. Not so easy. Skip those questionable ingredients.
- Anything that didn’t exist in your grandmother’s day—maybe even your great-grandmother’s day, depending on how old you are. I know this is kind of a trendy approach to eating right now, but it completely makes sense. One hundred years ago we didn’t need a label to tell us that our food was local, organic, and grass-fed; all food was whole, real, unadulterated, traditional food. Fortunately, there is a desire to get back to this way of eating.
- Anything containing soybean oil. Americans now get almost 10 percent of their calories from refined soybean oil, which is one of the most abundant sources of omega-6 fatty acids. Plus, it often contains high levels of glyphosate, or Roundup, the toxic herbicide used by Monsanto. It’s not that Americans are drinking soybean oil by the cup; most people aren’t even aware they’re eating it. But it’s lurking everywhere. If you eat fast food, grains, desserts, packaged snacks, potato chips, muffins, or conventionally raised meat, or buy almost anything cooked in oil at a cafeteria, diner, or restaurant, then you’re almost certainly consuming lots of soybean oil and other oils rich in omega-6 fatty acids without even knowing it. This stuff is toxic and inflammatory. Stay away.
- Anything containing high-fructose corn syrup. When used in moderation, it is a major cause of heart disease, obesity, cancer, dementia, liver failure, tooth decay, and more.
We just have to understand which processed foods we can safely eat and which ones we should avoid.
- Anything with the word “hydrogenated” in its name. Since most people don’t know that hydrogenated fat and trans fat are the same thing, food makers have been able to hide the trans fat content in plain sight using this little trick.
- Anything advertised on TV. Have you seen a commercial for broccoli or sardines during the Super Bowl? The worst foods get the most airtime on television.
- Anything with a cute name. Froot Loops are not a good source of fruit.
- Anything you can buy at a drive-through window. This one is a no-brainer.
- Anything with monosodium glutamate (otherwise known as MSG), even though the FDA says it is safe. It’s an excitotoxin—a neurotransmitter that is known to kill brain cells. We associate it with Chinese cuisine, but food companies use it in many items without our knowledge. They even try to hide its presence, calling it “hydrolyzed vegetable protein,” “vegetable protein,” “natural flavorings,” and even simply “spices.” Spices? Tricky, right? And the worst news—it induces hunger and carb cravings, so you’ll eat more of it. It’s what they give to lab rats in experiments to fatten them up
- Any food in an aerosol can.
- Anything called “cheese food” (which is neither cheese nor food).
- Anything with artificial sweeteners. The evidence is catching up. Recent studies have not been kind to artificial sweeteners, claiming among other problems they adversely affect gut health and glucose tolerance. I recommend giving up aspartame, sucralose, sugar alcohols such as maltitol, and all of the other heavily used and marketed sweeteners unless you want to slow down your metabolism, gain weight, and become an addict. Use a little stevia if you must, but skip out on the others.
- Anything with any type of additives, preservatives, or dyes (of which we eat about 2 1⁄2 pounds per person per year).
- Any food with more than five ingredients on the label, unless they are all things you recognize, such as tomatoes, water, basil, oregano, salt.
I know this might seem like a long list, but you can avoid all of these items by sticking with real, whole foods, and brands that you trust. In my new book, Food: What the Heck Should I Eat? I’ll walk you through an entire kitchen makeover, what foods to avoid and what foods to eat to promote health and avoid dis-ease.
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again, food is literally the most powerful medicine you have available to control your health. I want you to think of your kitchen as your pharmacy. It all starts with taking out the junk, and putting in the good stuff.
This piece originally appeared on Dr. Mark Hyman’s blog. Republished with permission from the author.
Dr. Hyman is a practicing family physician, a 10-time #1 New York Times bestselling author, and an internationally recognized leader, speaker, educator, and advocate in his field. He is the Director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. He is also the founder and director of The UltraWellness Center, chairman of the board of the Institute for Functional Medicine, a medical editor of The Huffington Post, and a regular medical contributor on many television shows including CBS This Morning, Today Show, Good Morning America, CNN, and The View, Katie and The Dr. Oz Show.