Responsibly reading the ingredients list on packaged foods can seriously try your vocabulary. From disodium phosphate to hydrolyzed vegetable protein and carrageenan, food manufacturers make it pretty tricky to decipher what you’re actually buying. What’s a health-conscious consumer to do? “Cook more from scratch, buy organic when in doubt, and read ingredient labels—not just the nutrition facts panel,” says Christine Gerbstadt, MD, RD, a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The shorter the ingredient list the better, says BFY's Go Mom Go blogger. But you still you have to know the prime offenders you’re looking for—and their aliases. Dr. Gerbstadt and other nutrition experts lined up the ingredients that make their least-wanted list here.
- Sugar aka agave nectar, brown sugar, cane crystals, cane syrup, dextrose, evaporated can juice, fructose, fruit juice concentrate, glucose, honey, invert sugar, lactose, maltose, malt syrup, molasses, raw sugar, sucrose, syrup
As straightforward as sugar seems, all its aliases make it easy to miss. And though “cane crystals” and “evaporated cane juice” may have a more wholesome ring to them, they behave the same in your body as the white stuff. “Sugar in all its forms adds excess calories with no added nutrients,” Dr. Gerbstadt says. Call it the ultimate mooch—it doesn't provide anything useful and it depletes B Vitamins, essential for energy metabolism. Look for it in these places you might least expect it.
- High-fructose corn syrup aka corn sugar, corn sweetener, corn syrup
This sugar alias was singled out specifically by Lisa Hark, PhD, RD, author of Nutrition for Life. Like other sugars it contributes to and has even been held almost solely accountable for the obesity epidemic. “This hidden source of sugar may increase LDL cholesterol and risk of diabetes,” Hark says. This bad guy often lurks in sodas, baked goods, candy, yogurts, salad dressings, and cereals. Hark suggests trying to weed it out of your diet. Read more about HFCS and how to avoid it.
- Salt aka baking soda, disodium phosphate, sea salt, sodium citrate
This is an important one considering 77 percent of the average person’s salt intake comes from restaurant and processed foods. High sodium intake increases blood pressure and risk of heart disease and stroke. Look out for it in condiments like sauces and dressings, soups, cured meats, lunch meats, even breads and cheeses. Try Go Mom Go’s tips for keeping sodium in check.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG) aka hydrolyzed vegetable protein, natural flavoring
This salt has been particularly controversial beyond the blood pressure concerns associated with its more straightforward siblings. “It’s an amino acid used as a flavor enhancer,” Hark says. “Long-term use may cause depression, disorientation, eye damage, fatigue, headaches, and obesity.” She says the culprits most likely to contain it include Chinese food, snack foods, chips, cookies, seasonings, many Campbell Soup products, frozen dinners, and lunchmeats.
- Saturated fats aka cottonseed, palm oil, palm kernel oil
Saturated fats raise blood cholesterol levels, increasing risk of heart disease and stroke. Dr. Gerbstadt warns that they’re also high in calories and promote inflammation, which is linked to diabetes and cancer. Beef, pork, butter, cheese, and baked and fried foods are some of the most common sources of saturated fat. But plant-based fats like palm oil, palm kernel oil, and coconut oil also contain a lot and may be hiding out in some seemingly healthy foods like natural peanut butter, baked goods, chips, and crackers.
- Trans fats aka partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, hydrogenated vegetable oil, shortening
The process of hydrogenation chemically changes liquid vegetable oil into a semi-solid shortening, reducing the levels of healthy polyunsaturated fatty acids like omega-3s and omega-6s and creating unhealthy trans fats. Trans fats raise bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower good (HDL) cholesterol, increasing risk for heart attack and stroke. They’re also associated with the development of diabetes. The American Heart Association recommends limiting trans fat intake to less than 2 grams a day. These fats often stow away in cookies, crackers, pastries, donuts, margarine, fried restaurant foods, icing, and microwave popcorn. “Read labels and reduce your intake of these foods,” Hark says. “Instead bake your own, using olive and canola oil.”
- Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite aka celery powder, celery juice
Nitrates and nitrites are used in cured meats to preserve the expected red color. But theses additives have been linked to various cancers. “Pay attention to any packaged meat, specifically deli meats, bacon, smoked meats, jerky, hot dogs and sausages,” says Laura Georgy, RD, a Chicago-based nutrition expert. “Your best bet is to purchase fresh or frozen organic meats—to cut down on additives.”
- Carrageenan aka algas, red marine algae
This thickening agent, derived from seaweed, is a plant-based alternative to gelatin. “It has been shown to cause inflammation—mainly of the digestive tract—and has been linked to ulcers and cancer in animal studies,” Georgy says. It’s used in ice cream, yogurt, jelly, chocolate milk, infant formula, cottage cheese, and non-dairy milks but you can find these products without carrageenan.
- Artificial food colorings aka blue 1, blue 2, citrus red 2, green 3, orange B, red 3, red 40, yellow 5, yellow 6
The synthetic chemicals dye most artificially colored foods. These dyes have been associated with hyperactivity in kids and tumors in some animal studies. Artificial food coloring most often sneaks into the diet via flavored beverages, sodas, beverage mixers, baked goods, ice cream, cereals, candy, and condiments. This is one case, though, where the nomenclature is actually helpful. “Any time I see a number like Red 40 or Blue 2 in an ingredients list, I take a mental pause,” Georgy says. “This waves a red flag suggesting the product is heavily processed.”