Decoding Ingredients on Processed Food Labels


Hersheys Candy Food Label IngredientsThe food industry in United States is legally using more than 3,000 food additives (preservatives, flavorings, colors and other ingredients). The good news is that most of them are disclosed on the food labels. Below are some examples of the most medically questionable and harmful additives in everyday foods that you should avoid entirely if you care for your health:

  1. Trans Fats

    Linked to increased risk of heart attack and stroke. These are artificial fats that make oil more soluble increasing the product’s shelf life and can be found in breakfast cereals, granola bars, health/weight loss protein bars, crackers, cookies, popcorn, etc. Even if the label clearly claims “Trans Fat: 0 grams” if you see any of the below words on the ingredient list then it contains some trans fat per serving:

    • Shortening
    • Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
    • Hydrogenated Vegetable Oils
  2. Artificial colors and synthetic dyes

    Linked to increased risk of ADHD/ADD in children, severe allergic reactions, symptoms of hyperactivity, inattention, behavior issues, allergies, stomach discomforts, brain and kidney tumors. These petroleum-based dyes are mostly found in candies, baked goods, frosting,  beverages, ice cream, sorbets, gelatin desserts, cereals, maraschino cherries, jams, sausage casings, oral drugs, pet foods, cosmetics, etc. and can be listed as:

    • FD&C Blue #1 (Brilliant Blue)
    • FD&C Blue #2 (Indigo Carmine)
    • Citrus Red #2
    • Green #3 (Fast Green)
    • Orange B
    • Red #3 (Erythrosine)
    • Red #40 (Allura Red)
    • Yellow #5 (Tartrazine)
    • Yellow #6 (Sunset Yellow)
  3. Artificial Preservatives

    Below preservatives are linked to various types of cancers, Alzheimer, brain damage, obesity, reproductive disorders, behavior disorders, headaches, heart palpitations, deplete the body of carotenoids including the beta-carotene precursor of vitamin A.

    • ›Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and ›Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) – these are antioxidants that stop the chemical breakdown of food when in the presence of oxygen and are found in cereals, rolled oats, chocolate, chewing gum, chips, dried vegetables, nuts, spreads, vegetable oil, fish products, decorations and toppings in sweet sauces, processed meats, pre-cooked pastas/noodles.
    • ›Diacetyl – Butter flavoring in microwave popcorn, margarine, candy, baked goods, and even pet food
    • MSG (aka ›Monosodium Glutamate, Monopotassium Glutamate, Sodium Hydrogen Glutamate, Glutamic acid, Glutamate, Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein)commonly used by restaurants and fast food places as ›flavor enhancer and for the addictive effect it has on the human body in order to make people eat more, hence spend more money on the same food once they “click” with it. Also, found in most canned soups, frozen and packaged foods (chips, gravy, salad dressing, etc)
    • Olestra (Olean)fat replacement that adds no fat, calories, or cholesterol to products such as low-fat snacks, chips and baked goods; blocks vitamins absorption
    • ›Potassium Bromateused in baking goods as flour improver that helps the flour to bulk up, strengthens the dough and makes it rise more rapidly
    • Potassium Sorbate – is used to increase the shelf life and to curb the production of yeast and mold in numerous foods such as cheese, yogurt, dried meats, apple cider, etc.
    • ›Sodium Benzoate, Benzoic Acid – found in many beverages, jams, pickled products, salads, cheeses, meats, and margarines
    • ›Sodium Nitrite, Sodium Nitrateused as preservative, coloring, flavoring agents in hot dogs, sausages, lunch meats, bacon
    • ›Sulfites (Sulfur dioxide, sodium bisulfite) – commonly used in wine preparation and to lengthen the life of fruit juices, dried fruit, processed potatoes
    • ›Vanillin, Ethyl VanillinVanilla substitute in baked goods, beverages, ice cream, chocolate, gelatin desserts
  4. Artificial and Chemical Sweetener Substitutes

    Linked to heart disease, diabetes, weight gain, obesity, various types of cancer, hormone disruptors, behavior, learning problems and all should be avoided as they have by-products of harmful toxic side effects and no nutritional value.


    • High Fructose Corn Syrup – highly processed corn syrup that has undergone enzymatic processing to convert some of its glucose into fructose producing a sweeter compound that contains higher levels of fructose. High fructose corn syrup has been linked to diabetes, obesity heart disease and cancer to name a few and has also been found to contain mercury.
    • Corn Syrup – highly processed syrup made from corn starch. Corn syrup is used in foods to soften texture, add volume and prevent crystallization of sugar
    • Acesulfame K (sold commercially as Sunette or Sweet One) – 200 times sweeter than sugar, but it has a slightly bitter aftertaste, especially at high concentrations. Acesulfame-K contains a known carcinogen called Methylene Chloride that also has severe side effects to us when we eat it for long periods of time (headaches, depression, nausea, liver damage, kidney damage, thyroid tumors, breast tumors).
    • Neotame – is based on the Aspartame formula and it’s 13,000 times sweeter than table sugar. It is considered by some as an even more potent and hazardous neurotoxin, immunotoxin and excitotoxin than it’s cousin, aspartame and must be avoided at all costs if you care about your health. In 2002, FDA approved Neotame for use as an economical substitute for molasses in a wide variety of food products, including baked goods and to fatten livestock.
    • Aspartame (sold commercially as Equal, NutraSweet) – 200 times sweeter than sugar. This is one of the most utilized artificial sweetener in the United States and by far, the second most dangerous food additive on the market. Originally, it was discovered as an ulcer drug that was later on adopted as a sweetener. Aspartame is used in over 6,000 food products worldwide. The FDA denied the approval of aspartame for 16 years as it has been linked to brain tumors. Since its approval in 1981 Aspartame has been linked to a growing list of other diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, fibromyalgia, ADHD/ADD, depression and other psychological disorders.
    • Saccharin (sold commercially as Sweet’n Low, Sweet Twin, Necta Sweet) –  300 times sweeter than sugar. Saccharin has been around for over 130 years but the links to bladder cancer has made it the most investigated of all artificial sweeteners. Between 1981 and 2000, U.S. National Toxicology Program’s Report on Carcinogens has listed Saccharin as a substance reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen (a substance known to cause cancer). In 2001, the health hazard warning label on Sweet ‘N Low packets “Use of this product may be hazardous to your health. This product contains saccharin, which has been determined to cause cancer in laboratory animals.” has been removed, however, dangers may still lurk.
    • Sucralose (sold commercially as Splenda) – 600 times sweeter thansugar. Sucralose is made of sugar molecules that were chemically manipulated to surrender hydrogen + oxygen and artificially replace them with chlorine molecules. Sucralose is a chlorocarbon from the pesticide family of Chlorodane, Lindane and DDT. Chlorocarbon poisons are known to produce calcified kidneys, swollen livers, birth defects, compromised immune functions and metabolic toxicities of the brain and nervous system.

“Please understand that these additives are in countless products from baked goods and chewing gum to chicken soup base, cereal, luncheon meats, vegetable oils and potato chips. If you eat a highly processed food diet, you are therefore potentially exposing yourself to cancer-causing toxins at every meal!”
– Dr. Joseph Mercola

Food manufacturers are required to list on the product label  the ingredients in order of predominance, with the ingredients used in the highest amount first. For this reason, read ingredient lists entirely! There are no easy answers when it comes to deciphering ingredients, but here are a few strategies that help you avoid exposure to these poisonous toxins and know exactly what’s in your food:

  • Rule of thumb: if the ingredient names sound like they belong in a science lab they should not be in your home or in your body.
  • Cut way back on the processed foods – if you still do eat processed foods choose organic varieties and read the ingredient labels choosing the foods with the least amount of additives
  • Shop the outside perimeter of the grocery store – there you’ll find mostly whole foods such as: produce and animal products
  • Keep your diet as pure as possible and focus your meals on whole foods giving your body pure nutrients, without the added toxins
  • Avoid eating out – while this is convenient over preparing your own meals, it frequently comes with the hidden price tag on your own health

It really comes down to a change in mindset and choosing to eat “real” foods in their original state or foods that have been minimally processed. Ideally you should prepare your food at home using fresh organic produce, organic grass-fed meats, eggs and other foods that don’t require an ingredients label. Even better, join a CSA and shop the farmers market for local just-picked produce and other fresh foods.

5 Responses to Decoding Ingredients on Processed Food Labels

  1. Edward January 4, 2013 at 1:57 PM #

    With the adoption of the Paleo Diet and an increased amount of physical activity to loose 40 pounds and return to a much healthier lifestyle, I began the timely process of trying to make sense of food labels. I don’t buy much processed food and focus my efforts on fresh fruits, vegetables and only lean proteins, and this post clarifies much of what I have struggled with in regards to understanding the need for a decoder. Thank you…

    • AV January 5, 2013 at 8:26 AM #

      Edward, you’re right, the food labels are a pain to read and are a disgrace to the food industry and the regulators so in the end we have to make our own research and decisions. We’ve been doing this for almost 2 years now and it’s still hard to decide. That’s why we have almost completely removed processed foods from our diet and we visit the farmers markets every week to get our fresh fruits and veggies!

      Great job on the Paleo Diet and let us know how that works for you!

  2. Nikki January 4, 2013 at 9:40 PM #

    Thanks for the very well put together post. Now we know exactly what to look for. I had aspartame poisoning, nothing to fool around with. Doctors could not figure it out and it is so mis-diagnosed and painful! Appreciate the warnings and information on how to find these hidden dangers to our bodies and health!

    • AV January 5, 2013 at 8:32 AM #

      All I can say is wow! Few years back I used to drink 2-3 Diet Coke cans a day… I was fortunate enough not to have any severe symptoms from aspartame but I am pretty sure it affected my immune system.

      Have you seen this documentary about aspartame? It’s plain scary:

    • Bianca March 20, 2013 at 8:36 AM #

      When I first watched this, I was one of those plopee thinking, Really?? This video is SOOO long BUT, it’s worth it. If you’ve never looked into the potential dangers of some of these artificial sweeteners, now is the time to become aware

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