Reading an ingredients list can be confusing, from numbers, to words that look like they belong in a science lab, sometimes they can leave us scratching our heads. The easiest thing to do is to always look for real foods, but when in doubt here’s a list of ingredients to avoid:
Aspartame – An artificial sweetener used in the place of sugar, aspartame is typically used in ‘zero sugar’ or ‘sugar free’ foods and drinks. It is roughly 200 times sweeter than sugar, which means only small amounts are needed. This allows brands to advertise that their products are ‘lower calorie’ than the sugar filled alternative. Artificial sweeteners can train our taste buds to require sweeter and sweeter tastes, leading to an overconsumption of sweets. Aspartame may cause headaches in those that are sensitive to this ingredient.
BHA (Butylated Hydroxyanisole) – As a synthetic antioxidant, BHA doesn’t get the real food tick of approval. Used for its preservative properties, the antioxidant content of butylated hydroxyanisole can help prevent the fats in certain foods from being oxidised. It can be found in processed meats, baked goods, dessert mixes, chewing gum, potato chips, and more. Other places this synthetic ingredient can be found include food packaging, rubber, petroleum products, medicines, and cosmetics. There is concern that BHA could be a possible carcinogen and therefore it’s better to avoid it in our foods. It is closely related to BHT, see below.
BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene) – Just like BHA, BHT is a synthetic antioxidant used as a preservative in some foods. Studies in mice have sparked concern that BHT may be toxic, causing problems with their liver, thyroid, kidney and/or lungs. The fact that this ingredient is made in a lab is enough for us to want to avoid it in our food.
Canola Oil – Canola oil is made from the bright yellow canola plant that was created as a more edible version of the rapeseed plant. To produce canola oil, the canola seeds go through extensive processing, which is a huge red flag when we’re trying to consume real foods. Canola oil contains trans fats, which are the most harmful fat for our health. It is also high in omega-6 and while this is an essential fatty acid, we are already consuming too much in proportion to our omega-3 intake. This contributes to its inflammatory properties.
Colours – Artificial colours have associated numbers in the 100 range. As they are artificial ingredients, they are literally manufactured in a lab and are not considered a real food. Look for foods that use real food ingredients to get their colour instead.
Dextrose – Made from corn, dextrose is a simple sugar that is chemically identical to glucose. As a simple sugar, it is not bound to any fibre and has a high GI (glycaemic index). This means that it can raise our blood sugar levels quite quickly. Too much sugar can lead to problems like insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Dextrose also lacks nutritional value and does not provide any benefits.
Flavours – Flavours can appear as a stand-alone word, or with the specified flavour before it, for example ‘chocolate flavour’. Keep in mind that a flavour isn’t an actual food it’s a term that describes a particular taste. Whenever you see the word flavour on an ingredients list, know that it can have up to 100 different ingredients, none of which have to be specified under this umbrella term. This means that there could be any number of highly processed, chemical ingredients that are not being disclosed.
Glucose – Another name for sugar, glucose is a simple carbohydrate. Small quantities of sugar are fine but be weary of products with a high sugar content coming from added sugars, rather than the naturally occurring kinds. When added sugar is present in a product, it is preferrable that it is raw sugar as it has undergone less processing.
Glucose Syrup – Glucose syrup is made by hydrolysing glucose molecules in starchy foods. Most commonly it is made from corn, but it can also be made from potatoes, barley, cassava and wheat. Glucose syrup can be considered a highly refined ingredient and due to being a form of refined sugar, it can cause a spike in blood sugar levels. Too much sugar in the long term can contribute towards the development of type 2 diabetes.
Golden Syrup – Made from concentrated sugar cane juice, golden syrup is sweeter than regular sugar. It is a refined ingredient and would not be considered a real food. Like all added sugars, excess consumption can lead to blood sugar imbalance, insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
High-Fructose Corn Syrup – A highly refined sweetener made from corn, high-fructose corn syrup is used in processed sweets and drinks. As the name suggests, it contains high levels of fructose, which can be harmful to consume in large quantities because the liver needs to keep up with the metabolism of this simple sugar. High-fructose corn syrup has been linked with weight gain, inflammation, and blood sugar problems, including diabetes.
Hydrolysed Soy Protein – Used as a flavour enhancer, hydrolysed soy protein has undergone extensive processing including the four steps of: hydrolysis, neutralisation, filtration, and ripening. It contains glutamic acid and may contain up to 30% MSG (monosodium glutamate). Hydrolysed soy protein is commonly found in meat alternatives and other processed, savoury foods.
Hydrolysed Vegetable Protein (HVP) – See the definition for hydrolysed soy protein, which is one of the most common type of hydrolysed vegetable protein used.
Maltodextrin – Made from corn, rice, potato starch or wheat, maltodextrin is a highly processed white powder that is generally used as a thickener or filler. It can also help to increase the shelf life of a product, acting as a preservative. It has a high glycaemic index that can raise blood sugar levels, particularly when consumed in large amounts. Maltodextrin may also have a detrimental impact towards our gut bacteria.
Modified Corn Starch - Anything with the word ‘modified’ is immediately a red flag as it no longer meets our real food criteria. Modified corn starch is typically used as a thickener, stabiliser or emulsifier. This ingredient may contribute to digestive discomfort in some individuals.
Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) – A flavour enhancer that is derived from L-glutamic acid, a naturally occurring amino acid in foods. MSG is made by fermenting certain carbohydrates (like sugar or molasses) and is used to enhance the already present flavours in a savoury food. Flavour enhancers like MSG can cause us to overeat and as a result lead to weight gain. Some people are sensitive to MSG and may experience symptoms such as flushing, sweating, headaches, numbness and/or weakness. MSG is often hidden under a number of other names, including E621, sodium glutamate, glutamic acid, monohydrate and anything ending in glutamate.
Polydextrose – Made in a laboratory, polydextrose is a highly refined ingredient that is used to bulk food and/or alter the texture. It is often used to replace sugar, starch or fat in baked goods and ice-cream. Polydextrose is a type of fibre and a non-digestible carbohydrate, however it doesn’t come with any of the benefits of a real food fibre and may actually cause digestive discomfort in some people.
Potassium Benzoate – Used for its preservative properties, potassium benzoate helps prevent the growth of certain mould, yeast, and bacteria. It is a highly refined ingredient that appears as a white odourless powder. This synthetic ingredient is made by combining benzoic acid and potassium salt. Like sodium benzoate, potassium benzoate can form benzene when mixed with ascorbic acid, also known as vitamin C. Benzene has been identified as a carcinogen so it is best to avoid foods that contain potassium benzoate, especially when the food also contains vitamin C.
Potassium Sorbate – A chemical additive, potassium sorbate is used as a preservative. It can prolong a product’s shelf life by helping prevent the growth of mould and yeast. This synthetic ingredient is made in a lab using sorbic acid and potassium hydroxide. It can be found in baked foods, canned goods, cheeses, preserved meats, dried fruit, ice cream, soft drinks, juices, wine, and more. Like any synthetic ingredient, it doesn’t meet the real food philosophy and is therefore best to be avoided.
Rapeseed Oil – Similar to canola oil, rapeseed oil is the industrial version of canola, meaning it’s used in the automotive and chemical industries and doesn’t belong in our food. In order to be called canola oil, it must contain less than 2% euric acid, which means that when we see rapeseed oil on an ingredient list it could contain more than this and therefore not meet international standards. Steer clear from both canola and rapeseed oils.
Reconstituted Juice – Juice that has been reconstituted is much more processed than juice that has been freshly squeezed. Reconstituting juice means that the fruit was dehydrated to be turned into a powder, then water was later added to rehydrate it and turn it back into a liquid. This increases the shelf life of the juice; however, it means that many of the nutrients that were originally present in the fruit are no longer there.
Reconstituted Skim Milk – See the definition for reconstituted milk. The main difference is that it skim milk has had the fat removed and is no longer in its most natural form.
Reconstituted Milk – Reconstituted milk is made by adding water to milk powder. It has been highly refined, as the milk has been dehydrated, turned into a powder and then turned back into a liquid. This processing means the end product has lost a lot of the original nutritional value of milk. This is done to increase the shelf life; however, it is at the expense of the nutrition we receive from the final product.
Saccharin – Marketed as a zero-calorie sweetener, saccharin is 300-400 times sweeter than sugar. It is an artificial sweetener, and the word artificial automatically makes it a no-no under our real food philosophy. Saccharin is linked to a class of compounds known as sulfonamides, which may cause reactions like headaches, breathing difficulties, diarrhoea and skin issues, in some people.
Safflower Oil – Coming from the seeds of a safflower plant, this oil comes in two varieties (high linoleic and high oleic) which refers to its fatty acid composition. As we already consume too much omega-6 (linoleic acid) and omega-9 (oleic acid) in proportion to our omega-3 intake, this oil can contribute to inflammation within our body. Along with this, it is highly processed and refined.
Shortening – also known as vegetable fat or vegetable shortening, see the description under ‘vegetable fat’ for more information on this ingredient.
Sodium Diacetate – An industrially manufactured ingredient, sodium diacetate is used as a preservative, flavouring agent and to adjust the pH of food. It can increase the shelf life of things like bread and meat, add a vinegar flavour and/or adjust the acidity of food. This ingredient increases the sodium content of the foods it is added to and may contribute to health complications from long term consumption of high sodium foods.
Sodium Nitrite – This ingredient is commonly used in processed meats as a preservative to help them last longer and prevent the growth of bacteria. Sodium nitrate also adds a salty flavour and can contribute to the red/pink colour of the meats it’s added to. Nitrites have the ability to turn into nitrosamine when heated at high temperatures in the presence of amino acids (which are naturally found in meat). Nitrosamine is considered a harmful compound and should be avoided. Intake of foods containing sodium nitrate and nitrosamine may lead to a higher risk of certain cancers.
Sodium Benzoate – A preservative that is used in carbonated drinks and some acidic foods, sodium benzoate may have harmful effects when combined with certain ingredients, including vitamin C. This is because when sodium benzoate and vitamin C are combined, it can be converted to benzene, which may be associated with cancer risk. There is also speculation whether high intake of drinks containing this ingredient could contribute towards behavioural issues. Look out for the words benzoic acid, benzene and benzoate on the ingredient list of products.
Sorbitol – Sorbitol is a type of carbohydrate. It comes under the category of sugar alcohols known as polyols. Sorbitol naturally occurs in some fruits, which is not a problem. However, it can be manufactured from corn syrup and used in foods and drinks for its ability to preserve moisture, provide texture and add sweetness. Like other sugar alcohols, it may cause digestive discomfort in some people.
Soybean Oil – Derived from the seeds of soybean plants, soybean oil is a type of vegetable oil. Just like any vegetable oil, soybean oil can be highly processed and refined and may have inflammatory properties. Hydrogenated soybean oil is particularly bad, as the oil has been heated to increase the shelf life and as a result trans fats are formed. These trans fats are the most harmful type of fat and have been linked to a higher risk of cardiovascular complications.
Stabilisers – Used to increase the stability and thickness of foods, stabilisers are present in many low-fat products. They are also used when there is the presence of ingredients that do not mix, such as oil and water. Stabilisers are highly processed and may lead to various symptoms with long term consumption. They may appear under various names but will generally specify that they are stabilisers in the ingredients list.
Sucralose – Sucralose is calorie free, artificial sweetener that is around 600 times sweeter than sugar. Funnily enough, sucralose is made using sugar but it undergoes a chemical process that changes its composition so that it is not metabolised by the body. Talk about not being a real food. Due to its intense sweetness, it can be used with bulking agents, such as maltodextrin or dextrose. Like other artificial sweeteners, sucralose can lead our taste buds to crave sweeter and sweeter foods.
Sucrose – Sucrose is naturally found in fruits and vegetables, but it can also be produced commercially from sugar cane and sugar beets. Commonly known as table sugar, sucrose is composed of glucose and fructose. This sweetener is refined and too much added sugar can lead to problems related to our blood sugar levels.
Sugar – In small quantities, added sugar can be fine, preferably in the form of ‘raw sugar’ as it is slightly less processed. However, it is important to avoid foods that have a high amount of added sugar. Added sugar can appear on an ingredient list under several names, including glucose, sucrose, dextrose, glucose syrup, golden syrup, brown sugar and more! Consuming too much sugar can be detrimental to our health and negatively impact our blood sugar levels. Long term consumption of high sugar products can contribute to the development of insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes.
Sulphur Dioxide – Found in foods like dried fruits, pickled vegetables, juices, cordial, wine and sausages, sulphur dioxide is used as a preservative. Sulphur dioxide, and other sulphites, may cause allergic reactions, asthma or breathing problems in those that are sensitive to it.
Sunflower Oil – Made by pressing the seeds of the sunflower plant, sunflower oil is a refined vegetable oil that can contribute to inflammation within the body. Due to the composition and fats within this oil, it is susceptible to damage when heated. There are several types of sunflower oil, including high linoleic, mid-oleic and high oleic. Linoleic acid is also known as omega-6, while oleic acid is known as omega-9. Both are considered essential fatty acids; however, they need to be in proper balance with our omega-3 consumption and this oil doesn’t facilitate the correct ratio.
Vegetable Oils – An umbrella term that can have any number of oils hidden under it, vegetable oils can be made up of things like canola oil, safflower oil, sunflower oil and/or rapeseed oil. You can read about each individual oil in this glossary, but in summary vegetable oils have been highly refined and can have an inflammatory effect on our body.
Vegetable Fat – Also known as vegetable shortening, this ingredient is made from hydrogenated vegetable oils. Vegetable oils on their own are bad enough, then the hydrogenation process to make them a solid at room temperature increases the amount of trans fats they contain. Trans fats are a type of fat that we should completely avoid, making vegetable fat (or shortening) one ingredient to definitely stay away from.
Yeast Extract – A type of food flavouring, yeast extract is added to savoury foods to give them an ‘umami’ flavour. This ingredient contains naturally occurring glutamates, which makes it like MSG, though not as bad or to the same effect. Unlike MSG, which doesn’t have a flavour (it just enhances it), yeast extract adds its own flavour to the product. Yeast extract is also very high in sodium.