With ‘Read Your Labels Day’ just around the corner, here’s our current summary of the very worst ingredients to look for

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April 9, 2015

Read Your Labels Day 2014 flat


It’s almost here! Saturday will be the third annual Citizens for Health Read Your Labels Day.  And in case you’re wondering why we chose April 11 for the occasion, it’s because of what you get when you dial 411 – information!  And information is what you absolutely need before buying any of the many processed foods available in today’s supermarkets in order to keep those products from having a serious impact on your own health and that of your family.

And by information, we don’t just mean the kind provided by front-of-package claims, or the “Nutrition Facts” label, which is often misleading and omits the most important facts about what’s in those products.  We’re talking about reading the part of the label that’s often least visible, where actual ingredients are listed. Because a lot of those ingredients are basically unfit for human consumption, despite being designed as GRAS “generally recognized as safe” by the industry-friendly Food and Drug Administration. And many products contain not just one, but two or more of them.

So here, now, is a summary of the ones we consider the ten you should most avoid – the ones we’ve updated you on during the past month – leading up to our choices for the “worst of the worst”:

Number 10: Artificial colors

The FDA’s admission that at least 96 percent of children aged 2-5 years are being exposed to at least four artificial colors in food products – FD&C Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6 and Blue 1 –came six years after the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned it have nine such dyes banned — and that an interim warning label be posted on foods containing them that they “cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children.” While an FDA committee concluded there was not enough evidence to take regulatory action, some companies such as Hershey’s and Nestle USA, have started acting on their own to remove them from products in response to consumer pressure.

Number 9: BHA and BHT

These preservatives, which are made from coal tar or petroleum and banned in Japan and most of Europe, have long been the focus of health and behavioral concerns. Over 30 years ago studies found that after both were fed to pregnant mice, they weighed less, slept less and fought more than normal controls, and  their offspring were born with altered brain chemistry. BHA is also listed as a carcinogen in California. But it wasn’t until “Food Babe” Vani Hari circulated a petition on the Internet noting that BHT is absent in the European versions of popular cereals that Kellogg’s and General Mills started making moves to eliminate it here as well, further demonstrating that pressure from consumers to have harmful additives removed from products does get results.

Number 8: Potassium bromate

Used to “improve” flour and make more uniform, attractive bakery products, potassium bromate has already been banned in many other countries. The FDA, however has merely asked the baking industry to voluntarily stop using it – despite a petition from CSPI back in 1999 noting that the agency had known since 1982 that it could cause tumors of the kidney, thyroid and other organs in animals and asking that its use be prohibited. While some commercial brands have replaced it, brominated flour is still widely used in restaurants and bakeries. In fact, General Mills, makers of Pillsbury and Gold Medal brand flours, offers 22 different brominated flours at its “professional baking solutions” site. Which is as good a reason as any to inquire about the ingredients in bakery items before you buy them.

Number 7: Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)

This additive, which is used to keep beverages from appearing cloudy, accumulates in fatty tissue and has been shown to cause heart damage in research animals. In fact, it has never actually been approved by the Food and Drug Administration, where its status has been in limbo for more than three decades. It finally took an Internet petition launched by Sarah Kavanagh, a Mississippi teen, along with TV’s Dr. Oz calling BVO his “number one shocking health threat in your food” to get the countries two leading beverage manufacturers to agree to remove it from products. When we recently checked, however, it was still being listed in Pepsi’s popular soda brand Mountain Dew.

Number 6: ‘Hidden forms of MSG’ (e,g., hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, sodium and calcium caseinate)

MSG” is a designation not just for monosodium glutamate, but for more than 40 ingredients containing “free” glutamate, or glutamic acid, as contrasted to the kind that’s naturally “bound” in foods like tomatoes. And these additives can turn up in all kinds of products, usually as flavor enhancers, or as sources of added protein, even those that claim to have no added MSG. And their presence. even small amountgs can cause devastating reactions in highly sensitive people, making nearly all processed foods a dangerous proposition for them.

Number 5: Monosodium glutamate

This “big kahuna” of flavor enhancers is used to perk up the taste — or at least the way we perceive the taste — of all manner of foods, from snacks to soups (including standard brands like Campbell’s).  But is effects can be a lot worse than the relatively mild “Chinese Restaurant Syndrome” attributed to it many years ago, In some cases, they can send unwary consumers to the ER, or even cause atrial fibrillation. It’s also an “excitotoxin” – so named because it can literally excite brain cells in the hypothalamus to death, especially in children and the elderly – which was why it was removed from baby food many years ago.

Number 4: Aspartame (a.k.a. NutraSweet, Equal)

This pervasive artificial sweetener, found in most “diet” drinks was allowed on the market over the objections of FDA advisers after having has been known to cause brain tumors in rats and grand mal seizures in rhesus monkeys. It also has been the subject of thousands of reports of adverse effect, ranging from migraines to vision problems to memory loss. Despite that, it is still often represented as a “healthy” alternative to caloric sweeteners, and the dairy industry has even petitioned the FDA for a change that would make it easier to feed aspartame-laced milk to school kids. But with new research –for example, a study last year having found that women who drink just two diet sodas a day have a significantly higher risk of heart attacks and strokes – more and moreconsumers are becoming leery of it, as are some companies (such as Yoplait, which has removed it from its “Lite” yogurt).
Number 3: Carrageenan

Used in a wide variety of products to give them a nice texture, fatty “mouth feel” and a good appearance, this tasteless, non-nutritive seaweed derivative has long been known to cause harmful gastrointestinal inflammation and intestinal lesions. But what’s especially disturbing is that it’s found in some organic foods, the National Organic Standards Board having approved its use by a one-vote margin in 2012. If nothing else, that’s a good reason for reading the ingredients label on organic products as well as conventional ones.

Number 2: Partially hydrogenated oil, or PHO (a.k.a. trans fat)

It will soon be a year and a half since the FDA proposed removing this artery-clogging substance, which gives products a longer shelf-life but causes an estimated 7,000 fatal heart attacks a year, from the GRAS list. But despite the fanfare that greeted that announcement, the agency has yet to take concrete action – even though a subsequent study showed PHO also impairs memory. Of course, it’s always possible the FDA itself simply forgot to act on this much heralded plan – but what’s more likely is that it was put off by objections from the food and baking industries.

Number 1: high fructose corn syrup, or HFCS (along with ‘fructose’)

Nearly two-thirds of Americans don’t want this cheap laboratory sweetener in their food, according to a recent Nielsen international health and wellness survey. And there are good reasons for that, as studies (including a recent one from Harvard Medical School) have consistently linked HFCS to health problems like obesity, diabetes, heart disease and nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. Such popular rejection has prompted an increasing number of processed food companies to specify that their products contain “no HFCS.” But at least a couple of the products making that claim now have “fructose” listed as an ingredient – one which the Corn Refiners Association claims is actually HFCS-90. Whether or not it is, “fructose” is a component of sugar that by itself or in unbound form (as in HFCS) the body has far more trouble assimilating than the “bound” glucose-fructose combo of which plain sugar consists.