The nutrition label reading mantra "if you can't pronounce it, don't eat it" has long been passed around as good advice for how to fill your grocery cart. Most of us have learned to regard unintelligible, chemical-sounding ingredients as a major red flag in our foods.
But the reality of which additives are dangerous (and which are safe) is actually more complicated than just avoiding ingredients with more than a couple of syllables. Some common additives, whether used to increase shelf life, add texture, or enhance flavor, are actually harmless—even if their names sound like gobbledygook.
So how do you know which is which? Though you’d have to dig into some serious science to filter through all the thousands of additives in our food supply, here’s the lowdown on three common ones to steer clear of and three that are a-OK.
Stay Far, Far Away
Partially Hydrogenated Oils
First, some good news: As of June 2018, the FDA has banned the use of partially hydrogenated oils in American foods. These chemically altered oils contain the harmful trans fats definitively linked with cancer, heart disease, and obesity—so it’s about time we stopped eating them altogether. Still, it could take a while for them to cycle out of our food supply entirely, as they may lurk in canned or frozen foods around your home.
Even if a nutrition label claims a food contains zero grams of trans fat, look for the words “partially hydrogenated” on the ingredient list for the real truth. Prior to the FDA’s new ruling, a loophole allowed food manufacturers to claim their products were “trans-fat free” if a single serving contained less than 0.5 grams of the stuff. Considering the fact that we’re only supposed to have up to two grams of trans fat per day, even a half a gram is significant.
OK, we’ll admit that for a food additive, “red dye” is surprisingly pronounceable. But that doesn’t mean this bad boy gets a pass. Researchers have been investigating its safety for decades, with unflattering results. The commonly used Red 40 contains a chemical called p-Cresidine, which reports have “reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.” And though red dye has not been proven to cause ADHD or hyperactivity in children or adults, it may aggravate symptoms.
Of the several varieties of red food colorings, Red 3 is the most controversial, with evidence linking it to damage of human liver cells (comparable to the damage caused by certain chemotherapy drugs). While banned in numerous countries, it continues to show up on American grocery shelves.
Though you might expect to see it in M&M’s or maraschino cherries, red dye can show up in surprising places. Keep an eye out on salad dressings, flavored yogurts, and cereals. (Thankfully, it’s easy to recognize since it’s just the word “red” with a number after it.)
Most commercially prepared breads require a little something besides flour, water, and yeast to keep their chewy, springy texture and to rise up nice and tall. Potassium bromate has been used in the U.S. for more than a hundred years as a “flour improver” that helps strengthen bread dough.
But this chemical agent may have some scary drawbacks. It’s been associated with an increased risk of cancer as far back as 1990. Like red dye, potassium bromate is illegal in many countries around the world, including India, China, and the entire European Union. The Center for Science in the Public Interest places it in their “avoid” category, defined as anything “unsafe in amounts consumed or is very poorly tested and not worth any risk.” Next time you shop the bakery aisle, check bread labels carefully.
You Can Stop Freaking Out About These
When you think of acid, you may picture a devastating liquid that could bore holes through your stomach—but in the scientific sense, all foods contain some balance of acidic and basic flavors. So the word “acid” on a label doesn’t mean it’s anything to avoid. Acetic acid is a component of vinegar that, when added to other foods, imparts a signature tartness. Condiments like mustard and ketchup, and pickled products like sauerkraut get a dose of acetic acid for added bite.
You may have spotted this multi-syllabic mystery word on cereal boxes or peanut butter, often in the form of “alpha” or “mixed” tocopherols. Sound like a poisonous cocktail? It’s actually nothing of the kind. Tocopherols are a form of vitamin E, a critical nutrient that serves numerous functions in the body, from maintaining healthy skin to boosting the immune system. As an antioxidant, vitamin E also helps combat aging by keep cells “clean” of damaging free radicals.
It gets better. The tocopherols used in foods are typically derived from plant oils, so they act as a natural—as opposed to a synthetic—preservative that increases shelf life. Sounds like a win-win for food manufacturers and consumers alike.
Though it’s another long word that conjures up images of lab coats and test tubes, don’t be scared off by maltodextrin. This additive is a white powder derived from any of several starches, including potato, wheat, corn, or rice. It helps thicken or increase volume in foods like puddings and muffins and can add a touch of extra sweetness to canned fruits.
Because it comes from starch, it’s really just another simple carbohydrate—not necessarily great for your blood sugar, but not dangerous, either. Maltodextrin has been recognized as safe by the FDA and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and (tellingly) is approved in countries all around the world.
As always, fresh, whole foods are the best way to go when it comes to eating a healthy diet—but since we’re only human, and processed, prepared foods find their place in even the healthiest diets (who has time to make every single meal and snack from scratch?!), knowing what to look for when you read labels can help you choose which additives you do and don’t want to put in your body.