High fructose corn syrup, MSG, Red 40: You know you need to look out for these culprits on a food label. But as you also know, food companies can be pretty sneaky with what they slip into packaged goods. With new additives and preservatives constantly showing up on supermarket shelves, it can be tough to know what words to check for. We asked experts to weigh in on what you should definitely cross off your grocery list—for good.
Derived from red seaweed, this natural additive is often used as a thickener to improve texture in things like almond milk, ice cream, and deli meats. The problem is that the seaweed is processed in a way that alters its chemical bonds and can produce an inflammatory response in our bodies, says Katie Cavuto, RD. Research has also linked the substance to ulcerative colitis and colon cancer in animals.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: carrageenan. Food manufacturers are required by law to list it that way. The big catch? It’s an approved ingredient for organic foods, so it can be found in foods labeled as such, notes Cavuto.
This one isn’t necessarily bad for you, says KIWI Advisory Board member Jess Kolko, RD. “But it’s a pretty big indicator that the food you’re looking at is highly processed and therefore should be avoided.” Chicory root is essentially a natural-sounding name for inulin, a carbohydrate fiber often added to processed foods to increase their fiber content and make them seem healthier than they actually are.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: chicory root, chicory root extract, or inulin. Kolko also advises looking closely at any foods labeled “high fiber,” which often means this substance has been added.
This trans-fat substitute—found in cookies, chocolate, crackers, and microwave popcorn—is really no better than the partially hydrogenated oils it’s replaced in recent years. “Palm oil still contains a good amount of saturated fat that can contribute to elevated cholesterol levels,” says Kolko. Plus, there’s the sustainability is- sue: U.S. imports of palm oil have more than doubled since 2005, which has contributed to mass deforestation and climate change in Southeast Asia, according to the non-governmental organization Greenpeace.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: palm oil kernel, palmate, palmitic acid, and other similar names. Even vegetable oil can contain trace amounts of the stuff, Kolko says, but your best bet is to pass on the product if you see the word palm somewhere in the ingredient list.
This type of oil is often partially hydrogenated and contains trans fat. That’s one problem. Another issue: mounting fears about the overconsumption of soy itself and its link to hormone disruption and other health problems. Then there’s the fact that most U.S. soybeans are genetically modified. “With the growing concern that genetic engineering of food plant seeds may have a negative impact on health, soy is definitely a pass,” says Cavuto.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR ON THE LABEL: soybean oil. Also be on the lookout for soy lecithin, soy protein, and soy protein isolate—all of which are likely genetically modified.