When looking at a nutrition label, most people think it’s important to look at the calories, fats, sugars, etc. However, the ingredients are just as important as anything else on the nutrition label. Those calories, fats, and sugars are all made up of the ingredients that are in that product.
What about “healthy” foods? Are ingredients important in healthy packaged products, too? Of course! There are sneaky ingredients in “healthy” packaged foods that are not so good for you.
1. Agave Nectar
The health of agave nectar is debatable. It’s a syrup that comes from the agave plant that is used as a “healthier” alternative to sugar. But is it that much healthier? Agave has a very high fructose (naturally occurring sugar, sometimes called a fruit sugar) content, which can be dangerous for the liver. Glucose can be broken down into energy by almost every cell in the body, but fructose can only be processed by liver cells.
Because of how fructose is broken down by the liver, agave nectar affects the body in a way similar to high fructose corn syrup. A high fructose intake (such as that from agave nectar) puts the liver at risk for non-alcoholic fatty liver disease. This is because the liver uses fructose to create fat during a process called lipogenesis. This process creates fat buildup in liver cells and, over time, the liver of someone consuming too much fructose will look similar to the liver of someone who drinks too much alcohol.
Fructose occurs naturally in fruits, but agave nectar has been shown to put mice at risk for weight gain and increased levels of insulin.
Agave nectar can be found in products like packaged desserts such as cookies or candies. It’s also common in snack bars and protein bars. Maple syrup, raw honey, and coconut nectar are healthier alternatives to agave nectar.
2. Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are popular because they are low on the glycemic index (a ranking of carbohydrates and their effect on blood sugar levels). Being low on the glycemic index means that sugar alcohols are digested and metabolized at slower rates and cause a slower rise in blood sugar levels. However, sugar alcohols still should not be consumed in large amounts. They can be irritating to the gut; research has shown that one such sugar alcohol, xylitol, can cause uncomfortable gas and bloating.
Sugar alcohols include erythritol, mannitol, and sorbitol; take note if you see those on the ingredients list. You will typically find sugar alcohols in packaged food or drinks (and gum) labeled “sugar-free.” A healthier alternative to sugar alcohols is the sugar substitute stevia.
3. Citric Acid
Citric acid is used as a preservative in many foods and supplements. It occurs naturally in citrus fruits like lemons, oranges, and grapefruits. Commercial citrus acid is made with a type of mold called aspergillus niger that, when combined with the sugars, produces citric acid. (The mold is filtered from the final version that ends up in your packaged foods.). A study in mice found that citric acid may negatively effect the brain and liver.
When buying anything containing citric acid, it’s important to know if it is natural or commercially produced. You can research the company to find out how they source their citric acid, or contact the company directly. Companies that prioritize quality use naturally occurring citric acid, so it’s much safer to consume. Look for companies that are non-GMO certified to ensure you are avoiding genetically modified versions of citric acid.
Citric acid is commonly found in packaged products since it’s used as a preservative. Drinks, snack products, diet foods, sauces and dressings, and soups are just some examples of products that can contain citric acid.
Carrageenan is similar to guar gum in that it’s used as an emulsifying and thickening agent. It’s found in a lot of dairy-free milk alternatives like almond milk, coconut milk, and soy milk. Carrageenan is made from red seaweed and has a specific chemical structure that makes it desirable for food manufacturers to use in their products. Carrageenan has a gelling effect so it creates smooth textures and emulsifies food products that would naturally separate—like dairy-free milks. But just because it makes the products texture better, doesn’t mean it’s good for you. A recent study has found that carrageenan may increase intestinal inflammation and disrupt digestion.
5. “Natural” Flavors
The word “natural” is often on packaged products. There are few regulations, however, related to the term’s use. The FDA defines natural flavors as “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Natural flavors can come from just about anywhere. “Natural” flavors may contain artificial and synthetic components of unknown-to-you origin; it’s hard to know if they are safe for you if you don’t know what they are. You can’t assume a naturally flavored product healthy. You will find natural flavors in a wide-variety of packaged and processed foods.
6. Canola Oil
Canola oil is used in many packaged products, which is why it’s so important to know its dangers. The dangers of canola oil start at the seed because approximately 90 percent of the canola crop in the United States is genetically modified (a debatably healthy process). Not only that, but canola oil is heavily refined, which means that it’s partially hydrogenated—using heat and chemicals to increase its level of stability to use in food manufacturing.
This is problematic for heart health as partially hydrogenated oils like canola are known for causing high levels of inflammation and calcification of arteries, which studies have shown are risk factors for coronary heart disease. Healthier alternatives to canola oil are coconut oil, avocado oil, and olive oil.
Always look at the ingredients list on your food labels. If you’re buying anything that comes in a package, read those ingredients! If you see any of these seven items, it’s best to put the item back on the shelf. Food that is fresh and unprocessed is always your healthiest option.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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