As nutrition professionals, we always recommend a well-balanced diet sourced from whole foods as opposed to a processed or fast food diet. The problem with that is the lack of convenience that comes with food planning and preparation. Busy schedules make it difficult to make a nutritious, home-cooked meal three times a day, seven days a week. Sometimes convenience foods are the only option. In moderation, these foods aren’t all bad, but as nutrition professionals, we do our best to avoid one thing: FAKE FOOD. I know, we got ya with the one food thing, when really it’s a whole class of foods, but we really do recommend avoiding the following things at all costs.
The idea behind artificial sweeteners is to provide a substitute for the sweet taste of sugar without the added calories. They have also been heavily marketed to the diabetic population, stating that they are better for your blood sugar regulation. In recent years, several sweeteners have been linked to cancer and they may also be detrimental to diabetics as they induce more cravings than they curb. Find more information on that here. Plus, you may find yourself eating more just to compensate, leading to weight gain.
As nutritionists, we take a cautious stance, assuming that all sweeteners will be deemed unsafe at some point. Since 1 teaspoonful of sugar only has 16 calories, our recommendation is to use natural sugar (go for raw/turbinado for an even less processed option), just use less than normal. Also avoid processed baked goods loaded with added sugar. Opt instead for naturally sweet foods like fruit to get your fix. Honey is another good option. It has 20 calories per teaspoon, but is sweeter, so you can use a little less.
Artificial dyes and food coloring
There’s something very exciting about brightly colored food..unless you’re a nutritionist. Then you know the difference between natural colors and unnaturally bright, bold color. I’m thinking about all of the colors in funfetti frosting…it’s just not right. If you’ve ever eaten a brightly colored food and had your teeth and tongue stained for several hours after, most likely, it contained food coloring. The issues with artificial colors goes way beyond an oddly colored mouth.
Lots of claims exist against artificial dyes, including links to cancer and ADHD symptoms. Several have banned already and the number of FDA approved dyes decreases on a yearly basis. Since safety cannot be guaranteed long term, it’s probably a good idea to just avoid foods with colors you haven’t seen in nature. Your ingredient list should not include any numbers, no Red#40 or Yellow #5.
It’s safe to eat foods dyed with beet juice (red), annatto seed (yellow), red cabbage (blue, surprisingly. Check out how here!). The good news is, manufacturers including General Mills, are starting to address the fact that people want more natural products. Artificial dyes are slowly (very) being phased out.
Remember when you heard that a Twinkie could survive a nuclear blast? While that ended up being a wild rumor, the amount of preservatives in Twinkies, and lots of other processed foods, is unsettling. If chemicals can be used to prolong the shelf life of a food product, we can only imagine that they could also be pickling us from the inside out. Gross. The truth is much worse. Several preservatives have links to stomach cancer and other GI issues.
There a number of products used to increase shelf life, maintain color and consistency. They all do a splendid job, at least from the point of view of the scientists that created them. In fact, they work so well that the food supply has become overrun with their use. Now that their safety is call for concern, we need to take a step back. Artificial preservatives are generally recognized as safe (GRAS), an official rating, but that status can change at any time as new research is presented.
Due to lack of data, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) rates potassium sorbate as a moderate hazard preservative, but by the looks of the muffin we’ve had in our office for ~10 years we’d say it’s probably best to avoid it if you can.
There are too many preservatives to list, but the EWG has done a great job of reviewing them. Your best bet is to look for products with the label “contains no preservatives”.
Moral of the story…there is no one food we avoid, but rather foods that require packaging with lots of words. Yes, we all cave and have packaged, processed food once in a while, but we do try to avoid artificial foods at all costs, stick to REAL food, and recommend our clients do the same.