It seems as if every day there’s a new super food or something else we should avoid like carbs, rice, fruit, and certain vegetables etc. It can easy to forget that the health industry is an industry. Its main goal is to make money. As individuals we can get lost in the mass amount of information when we are trying to live a healthy lifestyle. Companies use this as a tool to sell products.
When looking at a nutrition label, most people think it’s important to look at the calories, fats, sugars, etc. This is because we are often taught that “fats are bad” or “sugar is evil”. 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. This is important even for health food stores and products. There are sneaky ingredients in “healthy” packaged foods that may not be great for you.
- Agave Nectar
We’ve seen a rise in marketing that sugar will give you diabetes or lead to severe health issues. While there is a correlation with a diet that is in a surplus and eats high amounts of sugar to diabetes, the switch from fruits or natural forms of sugar to “sugar-free” products can be a dangerous trap.
Agave nectar is often used as a substitute. 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. Whereas fruits have natural fibers that help break down the sugars.
Agave nectar can be found in health products like packaged desserts such as cookies or candies. It’s also common in snack bars and protein bars. Maple syrup and raw honey are healthier alternatives to agave nectar.
- Sugar Alcohols
Sugar alcohols are another ingredient that are commonly added. People see things marked as “no sugar” and reach for it! It is often used in protein bars. 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.
- Citric Acid
We also need to keep in mind what is in supplements. Citric acid is used as a preservative in many foods and supplements. It 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.
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
The trend from dairy products to dairy-free products can be seen throughout health stores. While this is great for the environment and for some people’s health, the issue we see in it is that there are usually many unknown additives in dairy-free products. 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. While there needs to be more research on gelling agents, we tend to suggest to go for whole foods with no added ingredients.
- “Natural” Flavors
Marketing is smart. 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 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. Without market regulation “natural” flavors can mean just about anything!
Always look at the ingredients list on your food labels. If you’re buying anything that comes in a package, read those ingredients! Go for more whole foods such as vegetables, fruits, and grains that have no added ingredients.