Eat This: The worst ingredients

Reading the label of any packaged food can look like it needs a chemistry degree. I’d hazard a guess that if you do turn over the box or crunchy plastic bag of what you’re wanting to know more about, and see sodium benzoate, or carrageenan or even artificial flavouring tartrazine not knowing exactly what it means doesn’t lead to you putting it back on the shelf … or does it? Why isn’t the whole label readable to the layman, and not have long, unpronounceable words? It’s like a game of keep up with what’s the latest terms and see if you can figure it out. While leaving ALL packaged foods behind at the supermarket would be ideal, it’s hardly the norm with today’s options, marketing, advertising and busy lifestyle, those packages come in handy at times, but how can you make the most informed choice and avoid ingredients that have the potential for allergic reactions, headaches, migraine, rashes, meltdowns, hyperactivity, insomnia, gut issues like IBS, diarrhea and pain, high blood pressure, and worst of all, a long list of cancers that no one ever wants to hear come out of a doctor’s mouth as their diagnosis. I’m talking food additives, colours, preservatives, fats, and those ingredients that are one molecule away from being panty hose, as a friend once said about red Twizzlers.

How are you supposed to know what on earth is the healthiest option to eat if you don’t know what you’re looking for? Well today on EAT THIS with Lianne, the WORST ingredients that you want to avoid and why. 

Not sure if you know this, but I’m a regular on a bunch of local radio stations in Ontario called myFM and I speak with the host Jamie every Wednesday and we put a blog post and the clip together on if you ever want to listen. Anyway, this week he asked me about that damn candy corn – you know the striped yellow, orange, and white represent the colors of the fall harvest, or of corn on the cob, with the wide yellow end resembling a corn kernel. Apparently his wife loves it and he was asking all his guests if they eat it or not. A bit of a no brainer for me, but what came of that conversation is what I said off the top that a friend always said about red Twizzlers – that they’re one molecule away from panty hose and that got me thinking. Thinking about what on earth is in a food – if you can call it that – like candy corn. It’s a controversial one, that’s for sure, and is made up of a dozen ingredients: Four different kinds of sweeteners, including sugar, corn syrup, dextrose, and honey, but also the food dyes Yellow 6, Yellow 5, and Red 3, those lab-made ingredients that are often vilified for questionable side effects. If that’s not bad enough, the The candy’s hard outer coating comes from bugs. Candy corn’s firm, smooth coating is listed as confectioner’s glaze on the ingredient label, but the stuff is also known as lac-resin, a coating that comes straight from lac bugs, bright red insects that are found in Asia. The colours yellow and red dyes have been associated with hives, hyperactivity and yes, cancer. Plus it’s just not a real food so definitely NOT GOOD. 

I just heard that the UK banned a bakery using sprinkles that contain red dye 3 from shelves. They’re already banned in Europe but legal in the US. The dye had to go from cosmetics in 1990, but it’s still found in chewing gum, popsicles, ice creams, packaged fruit, candy, Kellogg’s products to call out a brand, so yes, it’s one to watch out for. 

Let’s go through a few of the key ingredients and their names so you can start making more informed choices. 

1. MSG

Monosodium glutamate is a flavour enhancer that have been infused it into everything from broths, to canned soup, frozen pizzas, flavored potato chips, salad dressings, deli meats, frozen dinners, fast foods, restaurant foods, and hot dogs, for more than a century to make them taste addictively delicious. It’s that savory, meaty, salty taste you get after taking a bite of Chinese beef and broccoli or after a crunch into a Doritos nacho cheese chip is unmistakable, and leaves you wanting more. Other names to look out for are hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast extract or hydrolyzed yeast extract, glutamic acid, monosodium salt, monohydrate, monosodium L-glutamate monohydrate, sodium glutamate monohydrate, L-Glutamic acid, monosodium salt, and monohydrate, sodium caseinate or calcium caseinate and even under natural-sounding names, such as bouillon, broth stock or malt extract. Adverse reactions include chest pain, flushing, and sweating. It’s also reportedly caused numbness or burning near the mouth and facial pressure or swelling, headaches are really common as are hives. 

2. Carrageenan 

This stuff had me hoodwinked for a while as it comes from red seaweed, and I thought what could be wrong with that?! Carrageenan acts as a thickener, emulsifier and preservative and you’ll likely find it in almond milk, cottage cheese, ice cream, coffee creamers and dairy-free products like vegan cheese. I stopped buying a popular brand of almond milk – Almond Breeze, because it has carrageenan in it and I fed that to my girls for years. Some studies have shown that it can increase inflammation, that it increased levels of fasting blood sugar and glucose intolerance, especially when combined with a high-fat diet and is believed to negatively impact digestive health, and may be associated with the formation of intestinal ulcers and growths and could be worrisome for those with ulcerative colitis. It’s not something that you’d necessarily feel worse for, but isn’t as innocent as it sounds, so one that I for sure avoid now.

3. Sodium Benzoate

It’s a preservative often added to carbonated drinks and acidic foods like salad dressings, pickles, fruit juices and condiments. I checked my fridge and found iit in my Hurricane Sriracha sauce, where it usually is, at the end of the ingredient list. If it’s combined with artificial food coloring, it can increase hyperactivity in kids, and I’d hazard a guess in adults too. If you’re a pop drinker, then look out ADHD as there’s a tie there too. When combined with vitamin C–as in citric acid or ascorbic acid, another preservative– sodium benzoate can also be converted into a benzene, a compound that may be associated with cancer development. Yep, your pop or carbonated beverages have the highest concentration of benzene, and diet or sugar-free beverages are even more prone to benzene formation. It’s not just pop either, I came across a study analyzing the concentration of benzene in a variety of foods found in cola and cole slaw samples with over 100 ppb of benzene, which is over 20 times the maximum contaminant level set by the EPA for drinking water. Look out for benzoic acid, benzene or benzoate, especially if combined with citric acid or ascorbic acid.

4. Aspartame

While we are talking about your favourite soda pop, so we might as well go here. Can you believe that it’s 200x sweeter than sugar?! Recently, a friend reached out lately and said that her husband drank umpteen cans of pop a day thinking that the diet option was the way to go. Well this one could be an episode unto itself, but let’s break it down to the coles notes. This was invented as something to help ulcers, apparently, and it was found to be incredibly sweet, so then approval as an artificial sweetener was embarked on. Sadly the association with to serious health problems, like cancer, cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease, seizures, stroke and dementia, as well as negative effects such as your gut bugs and intestinal dysbiosis, mood disorders, headaches and migraines, make it one to look out for on any ingredient list. Interestingly it can alter the oxidant and antioxidant balance in your body, induce oxidative stress, and damage cell membrane integrity, potentially affecting a variety of cells and tissues and cause dysregulation of your cell function, ultimately leading to systemic inflammation. According to a study of 1,454 participants (741 men, 713 women) over 10 years, the use of low-calorie sweeteners was associated with “higher relative weight, a larger waistline, and a higher prevalence and incidence of abdominal obesity”. Diet drinks are basically a mixture of carbonated water, natural or artificial sweetener, colorings, flavors, and other food additives. Just like the candy corn, it’s not a real food and provides NO nutritional value. Diet soda, or anything labeled sugar free like yogurt, cookies, or diabetic friendly options actually are associated with metabolic syndrome and higher risks of stroke and dementia versus those who drink regular carbonated soft drinks, or something with real sugar.

5. Artificial flavouring

Artificial flavouring could once again be its own episode, and while you might think that your strawberry yogurt containing strawberry bits is as good as plain and adding your own, that strawberry flavouring is what’s giving it the flavour that you love. One study found that the red blood cell production in rats was significantly reduced after they were fed artificial flavorings for seven days. Not only that, certain flavors like chocolate, biscuit and strawberry were also found to have a toxic effect on their bone marrow cells. Keep in mind artificial flavourings are commonly added to low-quality, highly processed foods, which also contain other additives, sugars, inflammatory fats and more that can affect our gut, liver, hormones, immune system and so much more! Remember that “flavours” are proprietary, so the company is not required to list the various chemicals that went into creating that “artificial flavour”, and all they have to write on the label is just that. When our taste receptors get activated through artificial food flavouring, the reward centre of our brain is activated and hormones like dopamine are released. When this happens, our own physiology gets confused, and we start craving those same foods over and over! Think about eating a bowl of peaches versus the peach peach ring candies–of which, peach is not even on the list of ingredients, and you’re more likely to eat the whole bag of candies and not the bowl of the real stuff. Sure, the sugar is more-ish, but it’s more about what happens in your brain. There are allergic reactions and food hypersensitivity that come with artificial flavouring as well as worsening of asthmatic symptoms. abdominal pain, diarrhoea and vomiting. An artificial flavor called diacetyl, which is used to flavor microwave popcorn–that I call chemical corn, and is also used in potato and corn chips and crackers, has been linked to Alzheimer’s disease, nausea, dizziness, headaches, fatigue and seizures.

6. Food colouring

A quick mention because I wanted to keep this to a list of 5, but food colouring needs a mention. Dyes that make foods appealing, or fun looking that are particularly attractive to kids, often big kids too, include Blue #1 Brilliant Blue which is banned in France and Finland, Blue #2 banned in Norway. Red #40 is the most widely used colour and are linked to chromosomal damage, tumours, hyperactivity and lymphomas. These have been linked with hyperactivity, including ADHD, behavioral changes like irritability and depression, hives and asthma, tumor growth; three of the primary food dyes contain benzene, a known cancer-causing substance.


I could go on but let’s wrap up this kill-joy of an episode here. Especially if you’ve got a birthday cake on order for someone sometime soon that you thought the flavoured and colour option would be best for the festivities, well, sorry to tell you, it’s not. 

I know you likely don’t consume all of these every day, but even ditching what you can from your shopping cart can only help your overall health. 

Also, I don’t expect to remember all those names and checking for every one on each ingredients list. I’d suggest choosing one or two and hone in on those and see what’s in your cupboard, pantry, fridge, and freezer. 

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