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Healthy Ronin

11 of The Worst Ingredients in Food – and Tips to Avoid Them!

Making healthy food choices can feel like a labrynth… Harmful ingredients hide everywhere, including in so-called “health-foods”! Here are the worst ingredients in food, and how you can avoid them.


I know the feeling, you know the feeling… Looking at something in the supermarket isle, scratching your head. It’s hard to analyse everything we eat, and often not necessary if we make the right choices.

But it takes some learning what foods contain the bad stuff, and what foods contain the good stuff. Today we’ll clear up the confusion.

Ask yourself if this looks familiar:

Which foods are bad for you - worst ingredients in food
“Wait, what’s that ingredient?”
“Surely this can’t be that bad!”
“Is this even healthy, or does it just say it is?”…

No more! This, the ‘Ultimate Guide to the Worst Ingredients in Food – and How to Avoid them’ covers the need-to-know on avoiding the bad stuff, protecting your health, and making healthy (delicious) swaps in your diet.

After this you’ll know how to avoid unhealthy food with ease!

1. Vegetable / Seed Oils and Fats

Without a doubt, these ingredients – sold by themselves or added into to processed foods – top the list of the worst ingredients in food.

They are used in foods as cheap fats and oils, and as preservatives.

This category includes processed and unnatural fats (mostly polyunsaturated fatty acids ‘PUFAs’ and TRANS fats). Examples include:

  • Sunflower oil
  • Soy oil
  • Margarine
  • Vegetable spreads
  • Rapeseed oil
  • Corn oil
  • Vegetable oil
  • Brominated vegetable oil
  • Partially- (or fully-) hydrogenated oils and fats
  • More…

Do not be lead to believe that these are “heart-healthy” or “beneficial fats”.

You can view a full list diagram here (Credit: Dr. Catherine Shanahan).

These harmful toxins wreak havoc on your health by forming cell-destroying free radicals. This damages the immune system, digestive system (^) and microbiome, heart (^)*, arteries, brain (^), and overall health (^)(^)(^).

What’s worse, they are a major cause of health issues which are often falsely associated with beneficial saturated fats!

Often, these oils are high in Omega-6. This itself is not bad. But, with most modern (especially Western) diets being way out of balance with Omega-3 : Omega-6, it becomes a big problem.

In other words, we need to limit these fats more and replace them with healthy fats and oils. Beneficial Omega-3 PUFA sources include fatty fish and grass-fed beef (^).

In addition, small amounts of Omega-3 can be found in chia seeds, hemp seeds, nuts, beans, and vegetables.

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • Processed Cereals:
    • Breakfast cereals
    • Granola
    • Breakfast bars
    • Snack bars
  • Fried foods:
    • Chips / fries
    • Crisps / potato chips
    • Nuggets
    • Fried fish
    • Battered food
    • Crispy food items
  • Seasonings and marinades:
    • Cooking pastes
    • Sauces (including those in tinned / canned foods, etc.)
    • Spice mixes
    • Condiments (especially mayonnaise)
  • Crackers
  • Pre-made and ready meals
  • Takeaways
  • Fast food

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Sprouted or Fermented Oats and other natural cereals, grains, and pseudo-grains:
    • Oatmeal
    • Millet
    • Brown Rice
    • Wild Rice
    • Quinoa
    • Farro
    • Pearl Barley
      There are thousands of ways to easily make these delicious at home – including for breakfast. Just take a look at some of my top oatmeal breakfast recipes!)
  • Healthy snacks:
    • Vegetables
    • Fruit
    • Cheese
    • Nuts
    • Leftover meals
    • Anything whole food!
  • Meats and fish with natural seasonings
  • Fresh and dried herbs and spices
  • Homemade sauces and marinades (Easy Italian Tomato Sauce Recipe)
  • Easy natural mayonnaise (Here’s a Great Recipe by Paleoleap)
  • Meal prep: best for busy people – no more ready meals and takeaways! A slow cooker is excellent for this.

If there is any one ingredient you wish to eliminate from your diet and start your health journey, this is where to begin…

2. Sugar

Excess or added sugar is an extremely close competitor to the above. This comes in many different forms as we’ll see, and we find it in even the most unexpected places.

Science knows well that excess sugar is a major cause of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, all-round inflammation, brain deterioration, and a plethora of other health epidemics. This calorie-dense ingredient can be hard to avoid without some basic principles:

  1. Read the ingredients
  2. Avoid processed foods
  3. Don’t buy it!

It’s easy to avoid sugar, you just have to know where it hides. Creating whole food, natural snacks, sauces, dinner recipes and so on is a simple process that can easily be integrated into your lifestyle!

The hardest part for some is “weaning off”. But you’ll always find the effort worth it, freeing yourself from what can truly be called one of the worst ingredients in food.

Your taste buds naturally adapt, and very soon you’ll begin to detect (and love) the subtle flavours and natural sweetness in real foods.

P.S. Take a look at number 7. Artificial Sweeteners for more information on a natural taste bud reset!

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • Granulated or powdered sugar
  • High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS)
  • Ingredients ending in “-ose”:
    • Dextrose
    • Maltose
    • Sucrose
    • Glucose, etc.
  • Candy / sweets
  • Soda / fizzy drinks
  • Fruit juices
  • Biscuits / cookies
  • Processed Cereals:
    • Breakfast cereals
    • Granola
    • Breakfast bars
    • Snack bars (including “healthy” options)
  • Fried foods (and the like):
    • Chips / fries
    • Crisps / potato chips
  • Seasonings and marinades:
    • Cooking pastes
    • Stock cubes
    • Sauces (including those in tinned foods, etc.)
    • Spice mixes
    • Condiments
    • Jams and jellies
  • Pre-made and ready meals:
    • Packet or pot noodles
    • Pasta
    • Rice
    • Soups
    • Microwave meals, etc.
  • Takeaways
  • Fast food
  • Most processed foods
  • Above-moderate amounts of sweet fruit (and honey)

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Vegetables (Starchy, root, and fibrous vegetables all help to beat cravings and satisfy a well-rounded diet).
  • Low-GI drinks and beverages:
    • Water
    • Herbal teas
    • Coffee
    • Tea
    • Milk
    • Homemade vegetable juices, smoothies, and shakes
  • Low-GI natural sweeteners:
    • Stevia
    • Erythritol
    • Yacon
    • Xylotol
  • Sprouted or Fermented Oats and other natural cereals, grains, and pseudo-grains:
    • Oatmeal
    • Millet
    • Brown Rice
    • Wild Rice
    • Quinoa
    • Farro
    • Pearl Barley
      There are thousands of ways to easily make these delicious at home – including for breakfast. Just take a look at some of my top oatmeal breakfast recipes)!
  • Moderate amounts of sweet fruit or a little honey. Dates are a good choice for helping cravings without the same high blood sugar spikes.
  • Homemade sauces and marinades (Easy Italian Tomato Sauce Recipe)
  • Real homemade broths and stocks:
    • Chicken stock
    • Bone broth
    • Vegetable stock
    • Kombu Dashi
    • Stock cubes (you can freeze stocks and broths like ice cubes)
    • Spices and herbs
  • Meal prep (best for busy people – no more ready meals and takeaways! Once again, a slow cooker is excellent for this).

3. Other Refined Carbs: White Rice, Bread, Pasta, Flour…

These “refined carbs” are very similar to sugars in the effects they have. Essentially, they’re calorie-dense “empty” carbohydrates from whole foods which have been stripped of their nutrition.

Sugar and refined flours are used to make doughnuts – a dangerous combination

Examples include rice, which contains more fibre, B-vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants as a whole grain (think brown rice). In those who tolerate them well, there may be many health benefits associated with whole grains (^)(^)(^).

However, by removing the outer husk, bran, and germ we get white rice.

Nutritionally, white rice almost entirely starch with very little fibre, leading to more rapid digestion and spikes in insulin and blood sugar.

This is a refined carbohydrate.

Refined carbohydrates are considered to contribute to weight gain by increasing cravings after blood sugar rapidly drops again.

The glycemic effects contribute further to type 2 diabetes (^) (or insulin resistance) and heart disease (^)(^).

We’re just touching the surface here. Above all, the consumption of refined carbohydrates is closely linked with inflammatory and detrimental effects, all contributing towards chronic disease (^).

Considering the prevalence in modern diets, these offenders are some of the worst ingredients in food out there.

Keep in mind that refined and whole grains and carbohydrates are worlds apart in their nutrition and metabolic effects.

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • White flours (wheat or other):
    • Breads
    • Pastries
    • Desserts
    • Biscuits
    • Candy / sweets
    • Noodles
    • Pasta
  • White Rice
  • Wheat berries
  • Pearl barley
  • Breakfast Cereals
  • Snack Bars

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Coconut flour
  • Nut flours (preferably sprouted or fermented*)
  • Whole grains*:
    • Brown / red rice
    • Black rice
    • Oats and oat groats
    • Corn kernels
    • Hulled barley
  • Wholegrain flours*
  • Pseudocereals*:
    • Quinoa
    • Buckwheat
    • Amaranth
    • Millet
  • Legumes and beans*:
    • Kidney beans
    • Chickpeas
    • Butter beans
    • Lentils
    • Peas
    • Soybeans
  • Potatoes (best with skin)
  • Sweet potatoes and other tubers (best with skin)
  • Cauliflower rice
  • Cauliflower tortillas
  • Keto breads
  • Other Vegetables

* I mentioned sprouting and fermenting above. These are important traditional methods of preparation which we have used as a species for thousands of years.

This allows us to properly digest seeds (which includes all of those with an asterisk above). Humans haven’t evolved the means to break down these seeds like other animals.

By reducing the otherwise large amounts of phytic acid, lectins, and other anti nutrients, we avoid adverse effects and can absorb nutrients better.

Additionally, we are provided with more beneficial enzymes and increased vitamin concentration – particularly with fermenting.

(Once again, a great way to start is with oats, just like below):

Proper preparation methods like this can also improve carbohydrate profiles of foods and lower FODMAPs.

They are extremely easy skills, and are often a world of fun, too! I recommend looking at Cultures for Health for excellent recipes and ideas. Also check out my posts on fermenting oats, rice, (and pickles).

To get you started making your own easy sprouts, here’s a quick step-by-step tutorial:

Otherwise, at least soaking the foods above (just as you would raw beans) is highly recommended. I do this mostly with nuts and chia seeds.

4. Water Contaminants

Warning: majorly overlooked!

When it comes to avoiding toxins and supporting a more natural diet, people tend to subconsciously exclude water quality.

It’s easily one of the most overlooked aspects of a healthy lifestyle.

We each consume litres upon litres of water on a daily basis, and so we should! Being an ingredient so essential to health (and life) means that it is important we stay hydrated throughout the day.

But it’s not just water we’re drinking away; toxins and impurities and contaminants find themselves in the chemical mix:

  • Toxic metals
  • BPA
  • Antibiotics
  • Sediment
  • Fluoride
  • Chlorine
  • Pesticides and Herbicides (‘Volatile Organic Chemicals’ (VOC’s))

Above are just a few examples. Combined, long-term exposure to these toxins may contribute to many health risks.

Some examples include cancers, neurotoxicity, impaired hormonal and reproductive systems, reduced respiratory health, increased risk of high blood pressure, and other chronic diseases.

Read: Why to Use a Water Filter – About Harmful Chemicals

By no means should we stop drinking water. That’s the last thing you should do for your health!

Nonetheless, we have options to consume water in its more natural state and avoid these toxins.

For instance, some people use DIY water filtration methods like distillation. This isn’t always practical, however.

The best choices therefore are built-in filtration systems, countertop water filters, filter bottles, and other handy devices. These are worth the initial investment, being cheaper and much more eco-friendly than buying bottled water when you are out!

You can find out more in our list of the top 5 water filters for every purpose.

Make Water Pure Distiller Review - Water Filter to remove harmful toxins
Here’s my number #1 recommendation for quality and price.

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • Municipal tap water
  • Bottled water
  • Diluted beverages
  • Ice cubes
  • Ice lollies

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Filtered Water (from own filter)
  • Pre-bought filtered water
  • Homemade filtered ice cubes
  • Natural fresh water (if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with a clean, natural supply!)

5. Pesticides and Herbicides

Yep, another one of the worst ingredients in food is one that we’ve all heard about.

Unfortunately, the same chemicals (VOC’s) we find in our water are much more abundant in our food.

Pesticides and herbicides have had an important impact on agriculture, helping to increase crop yield. Unfortunately, many of these potent chemicals have brought harm to us, and to the planet.

This is why we need to shift our focus more and more towards organic, sustainable farming methods.

Children are the most vulnerable to negative impacts from these chemicals. Increased risk exists for the elderly and those with long-term exposure.

The most-used potentially harmful chemical found in fruit, vegetables, and meat is ‘glyphosate’ (especially ‘Roundup’). High intake of this herbicide has been linked to:

  • Cancer (^)(^)
  • Gastrointestinal, liver, and kidney damage (^)
  • Toxic effects on the gut microbiome (^)(^) (and related digestive and neurobehavioural impairment)
  • Neurodegeneration*(^) (particularly Parkinson’s)

One study on glyphosate found it to directly cause brain cell impairment and death (^).

Other chemicals used such as ‘organophosphates’ and ‘carbamate’ pesticides have additionally been linked to endocrine disruption (^)(^), impaired liver function (^), hypertension, and cancer (^). Sadly, the list does go on.

Environmental impact, too, is important.

We need more than ever to protect our livestock, our wildlife (especially vulnerable species like bees), and our oceans.

This will inevitably impact the ability to grow healthy produce going forward, too.

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • Fruits, vegetables, and grains (especially non-organic):
    • Leafy greens
    • Sweet fruit
    • Rice
      These 3 foods are highest – See below
  • Conventional meat sources
  • Water Supplies

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Low pesticide and organic fruit, vegetables, and grains (particularly for high pesticide items) – See below
  • Organic meat or opting for more fish or vegetable protein sources (dietary balance)
  • Filtered Water

Shopping for produce to benefit your health and the environment is easier than it seems.

Certain vegetables contain much lower levels of chemicals. Buying these non-organic makes the most sense – especially on a budget.

The emphasis is to opt for organic where you can can on the items with the most pesticide residue. Easy lists such as as the ‘Dirty Dozen’ and ‘Clean Fifteen’ can be found for the US and the UK to help buyers make better choices!

P.S. Organic produce doesn’t always cost much more, and may even cost less. The health benefits and support for organic agriculture and sustainability often more than make up for the price difference.

6. Other Preservatives

‘Butylated hydroxytoluene’ BHT (E321) and ‘Butylated hydroxy-anisole’ BHA (E320) – two common preservatives worth noting.

BHA in particular may be consumed close to the daily intake limits in the average American diet. European countries like Finland and The Netherlands have a higher mean intake, according to ANS (^).

Long-term exposure is the largest concern with these, as short-term high intake levels are unlikely.

Here are some possible health concerns of BHT and BHA preservatives:

  • Endocrine disruption (^)
  • Stomach and liver lesions and cancers (^)(^)(^)
  • Potential to increase lipid peroxidation and LDL cholesterol (^) – particularly in high amounts of BHT (including long-term)

Research is still inconclusive on the full effects and safety. A few studies have indicated BHA (as an antioxidant) to have a protective effect against cancers in certain contexts and doses.

On the other hand, more studies contradict this and still show more concern towards the risks than any benefits of this additive.

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • Processed foods (especially containing fats and oils): vegetable oils, butter, spreads, meats, breakfast cereals, crisps / potato chips
  • Chewing gum
  • Dehydrated potato products
  • Some breads

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Avoid processed foods (read the ingredients for processed meats such as bacon or smoked fish, or butter)
  • Cereal and bread alternatives: See alternatives under “refined carbs” and “sugar” (including traditionally prepared grains and seeds)
  • Non-cereal breakfasts: The sky’s the limit!
  • Potatoes: Boiled, baked, roasted, mashed, etc.

7. Artificial Sweeteners

Yep, these can be bad for you in many ways, just like the sugar they often replace!

In fact, some even may increase the risk of type 2 diabetes (^).

Whilst they may restrict calorie intake, studies indicate that they may impact our metabolism and insulin sensitivity.

A 2017 European study found an average of 83% increased risk of type 2 diabetes in women using them “always or almost always” as opposed to “rarely or never”. This accounted for data from more than 60,000 women (^).

Concerningly, mice fed sweeteners in a 2014 study found altered metabolism to be closely linked with impaired gut microbiome (^).

Other studies demonstrate varying results and negative effects on IBS and overall digestive health for a range of common sweeteners (^)(^).

Natural sweeteners don’t seem to have these effects, though more research may be needed on Stevia.

Overall, we find possible links between artificial sweeteners and type 2 diabetes, reduced gut health and brain function (^)(^), inflammation, increased risk of chronic diseases of the heart, brain, and more (^).

It is long-term intake that produces the most negative impacts, especially if excessive.

To tell the truth, claimed beneficial effects of artificial sweeteners are now largely debated or invalidated, and some may serve marketing purposes more than anything.

Above all, it seems that the most beneficial approach is to avoid processed foods containing sweeteners and only use natural alternatives when necessary to help wean off of sugar. Eventually, these should be reduced, too.

As we learned in point number 2. about sugar, our taste buds are excellent at adapting. It takes just 10 days for your taste buds to replenish, meaning within one or two weeks without sugar or sweeteners, you’ll see impressive results!

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • A very wide range of processed foods (especially labelled as “flavoured”):
    • Candy / sweets
    • Cakes
    • Biscuits / cookies
    • Breakfast cereals
    • Seasonings and marinades
    • Pre-made and ready meals
    • Tinned or canned food
    • Takeaways
    • Fast food
  • Flavoured beverages (including water and some non-dairy milks)
  • Flavoured Pharmaceuticals
  • Sweeteners (i.e. for baking)

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Retrain your taste buds! Opt for whole foods only as a starting point for improved health and better flavour detection.
  • Low-GI natural sweeteners:
    • Stevia
    • Erythritol
    • Yacon
    • Xylotol
  • Vegetables (Starchy, root, and fibrous vegetables all help to beat cravings and satisfy a well-rounded diet).
  • Moderate amounts of sweet fruit or a little honey (dates are a good choice for helping cravings without the same high blood sugar spikes).
  • Avoid overusing tablets and pharmaceuticals when not necessary. Many people overuse painkillers and antibiotics, for example. Follow your healthcare professional’s guidance and take what you need.

8. Food Colourings

Food colourings are one of the worst ingredients in food, especially due to where they’re found.

We find these additives almost exclusively in processed foods that we want to be avoiding anyway. As you’d imagine, these are typically the bright and colourful unnatural products on the shelves.

However, we also find them in less obvious food items (like pre-made meals and tinned or canned foods).

Avoiding unhealthy colourings is generally very easy, and certain colourings are actually natural extracts taken from spices and vegetables.

Synthetic food dyes and colourings are often made from a range of chemical processes and tend to use petroleum. Different types may pose different health risks.

Types and Risks

The three most common food colourings in the US are are Red 40, Yellow 5, and Yellow 6, which all contain low amounts of carcinogens like benzidine. Along with Blue 1, some people experience sensitive reactions to these (^).

Studies have found concerns with Red 3 more than any other added colouring, showing that it increases tumor risk in rats. One meta-analysis of 43 different sources effectively shows this. It concludes that Red 3 could prove significantly of risk in causing human breast cancer (^).

Additionally, a range of artificial / synthetic colourings may increase hyperactivity in children. This raises further concerns for those with ADHD (^).

Given the fact that colourings are abundant in foods commonly consumed by children, parents should be made more aware of this (^).

The most significant risk of colourings is allergic reactions. This applies mostly to synthetic types, but also to some natural dyes such as carmine ‘Red 4’ (red) and annatto (yellow).

According to NYASC, potential food colouring allergy symptoms are hives, headaches, swelling, flushing, chest tightness, difficulty breathing. In rare cases, anaphylaxis is possible.

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • Colourful processed foods:
    • Candy / sweets
    • Biscuits
    • Cakes
    • Soda / fizzy drinks
    • Some pre-made and ready meals
    • Some tinned or canned foods
  • Food dyes and colourings (such as for baking)

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Simply focus on healthy whole foods. These don’t contain dyes, and still provide an abundance of colour in a balanced diet. In fact, we should aim for more colour!
  • Easy homemade dyes using fresh ingredients (here are some recipe ideas)

9. Antibiotics

Antiobiotics are used to treat a large amount animals in agriculture, especially in conventional farming.

This serves to prevent disease amongst animals kept in conditions where it would otherwise be certain to occur. Cramped spaces, poor sanitation, and unhealthy animals are the main causing factors, which is why conventional farming necessitates antibiotic use the most.

Additionally, certain antibiotics may be given to promote the growth of animals prior to slaughter.

In the UK, using antibiotics for growth purposes was banned in the 1970s. This process continues in the US.

On average, up to 80% of US antibiotics go towards agriculture.

Here’s the Problem

Although very little antibiotics make it into our food, and likely have no direct impact on human health, they may have major indirect effects.

The largest concerns with this are the increased development of resistant bacteria and growing rates of antibiotic resistance.

Resistant E. Coli and Salmonella strain superbugs have been increasingly found, along with other disease-causing bacteria which may find its way into our food.

These can infect humans from animal contact or as food-borne illnesses.

This mostly applies to meat, however according the the World Health Organisation (WHO), these can spread to fruits and vegetables.

Misuse of antibiotics is a major problem, because farmers overuse them as preventative measures and to promote growth against recommendations, rather than as treatment methods for disease.

As concerns increase, natural and improved preventative measures need to be taken more seriously. We should continue to work for improved sanitation, overall animal welfare, housing, and husbandry.

So yes, these are one of the worst ingredients in food, playing a large misused role in agriculture worldwide.

What to Do about It

  1. Support the organic farmers!
    • Organic farming reduces the risk of disease in animals, calling no antibiotics or only as necessary.
    • Buying organic meat funds these farmers more.
    • Show support at events, clubs, or by helping out in local community projects.
    • Spread the word.
    • Volunteer, donate, or work! Soil Association opportunities often come up.
    • Contact your supermarkets and ask them to publish data on antibiotics in their produce. In the UK, request more meat with lower antibiotic use (often this is British instead of imported).
  2. Opt for higher quality meat:
    • Minimise your exposure, and consume much more beneficial meat by choosing higher welfare standards. Organic meat and animal products are best.
    • Remember: welfare = quality. The better animals are treated, and the more naturally they are raised, the healthier they’ll be!

10. Nitrates and Sodium Nitrites

Nitrates and sodium nitrites are a class of preservatives often used in processed meat. Their purpose is to prevent spoilage and discoloration, often providing bright red and pink colours to meat.

Additionally, they contribute to the distinctive salty flavours of bacon, sausages, etc.

Vegetables like beets and celery may also provide great sources, however. So, what gives?

At high heat cooking, these form into compounds called “nitrosamines”, and these are what we’re worried about.

High intake is thought to contribute to digestive cancers in particular (^)(^).

For the most part, this formation happens in the presence of the amino acids present in proteins.

As we rarely cook vegetables at very high heats, and they are naturally lower in protein, the nitrates that they provide us with instead benefit us such as by forming into nitric oxide which supports blood vessel dilation.

For this reason, nitrates and their vegetable sources are actually valued by athletes and those looking to improve circulation (^)(^)!

Steps to Minimise Exposure

  1. Read the labels:
    • Instead of buying any cheap bacon or other processed meat, try to opt for high quality with less nitrates or nitrites in the ingredients or even those labelled as “nitrate free”.
  2. Cook with care:
    • Avoid cooking the meat at high temperatures*. Instead, fry bacon gently with more moisture, for example – and not until it’s burnt and crispy!
  3. Enjoy your veggies!
    • Vitamin C inhibits the formation and effects of nitrosamines. It’s abundant in most vegetables like bell peppers, broccoli, onions, potatoes, etc. So serve those sausages and eggs with broccoli, potatoes, or spinach for a delicious meal!

*This goes for all meat, in fact. High temperatures also distort proteins and fat. In effect, this creates an even wider range of carcinogens, whilst simultaneously preventing the uptake of these beneficial nutrients.

11. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

Monosodium Glutamate, often referred to as ‘MSG’, has been the subject of much controversy.

Most commonly found in processed foods and takeaways (especially Chinese and Southeast Asian food), MSG is a flavour enhancer which stimulates the ‘umami’ taste receptors.

Umami describes a satisfying, savoury sense and comes from ‘glutamates’, ‘inosinates’, and ‘guanylates’.

Many natural foods contain these: meat, poultry, fish, cheese, tomatoes, mushrooms, yeast extract, seaweed, fermented foods, and a range of vegetables.

MSG is the sodium salt form of glutamic acid, and is often sold granulated.

Commonly claimed adverse effects include:

  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
  • Sweating
  • Hot flushes
  • Numbness in mouth or elsewhere
  • Digestive upset

It is clear that many of these minor symptoms may be caused by a placebo effect. This is due to exaggerated health scares in the past, and has been coined the term ‘Chinese restaurant syndrome’.

However, some people do not tolerate MSG well and may experience these and other negative short-term effects. Typically, symptoms occur at high doses (3g or more).

In most cases, no treatment is necessary and these people should simply limit their MSG intake.

More severe reactions include:

  • Chest pain
  • Mood swings
  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Weakness
  • Weight gain

Should You Avoid MSG?

This depends on individual responses, doses, and preferences.

Most people can handle the small amounts of MSG found in food without experiencing noticeable side effects.

Overall, completely avoiding MSG likely isn’t necessary. It is beneficial to avoid excessive intake, and those with any symptoms would do better to avoid it altogether.

It is important to consider that most of the time it is found in unhealthy foods.

Because of this, a healthy diet is naturally low (if not absent) in MSG, and makes good use of naturally umami-rich foods.

The Research

Research suggests that increased intake or large doses could have long-term health effects. Increased weight and overall BMI are the largest concerns.

Large public studies in China have effectively found increased MSG intake, accounting for lifestyle factors, to be a risk factor for weight gain (^)(^).

On the other hand, no correlation was found in a Vietnamese study between obesity and MSG (^).

Early animal studies injected MSG at high doses into the brains of mice. Despite finding toxic effects, these have been dismissed as a concern as humans typically do not consume large enough amounts of MSG and it does not cross well into the brain (^).

Moreover, some researchers suggest that high amounts could increase blood glutamate concentrations and lead to slightly increased glutamate in the brain (^).

This could be responsible for some of the adverse effects if true, and may damage mature brain cells.

Interestingly, vitamin C seems to reduce this effect.

According to one study on human white blood cells, MSG could potentially damage DNA structure (^). More research is needed on what this means for human consumption.

To call MSG one of the worst ingredients in food still doesn’t put it on the same level as other items on this list, however.

Common Sources to Avoid:

  • A wide range of processed foods:
    • Takeaways (especially Chinese and SE Asian, and KFC)
    • Fast food
    • Crisps / potato chips
    • Seasonings and marinades (especially packet seasonings)
    • Pre-made and ready meals
    • Breakfast cereals
    • Tinned or canned food
    • Biscuits / cookies

Healthy Alternatives:

  • Natural umami-rich foods (abundant in whole food diets):
    • Meat
    • Vegetables and beans (asparagus, peas, corn, beetroots, lotus root, garlic, cabbage, soy beans, learn more)

Conclusion

When following a healthy diet, it’s essential to avoid certain toxins and ingredients.

This prevents a wide range of chronic health problems such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, inflammation, cancer, brain degeneration, and obesity.

For the most part, harmful ingredients can be avoided by following a whole food diet abundant in natural and unrefined foods (as tolerated):

  • Meat
  • Fish
  • Dairy
  • Healthy Fats and Oils
  • Legumes
  • Whole grains
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Nuts and seeds
  • And so on…

This article provides an in-depth guide to improving and protecting your health with easy, healthy swaps. To sum up, we’ve learned what the worst ingredients in food are, where they hide, why to avoid them, and what you can use instead.

Remember to stay away from processed foods in particular, including takeaways and fast food.

Making your own meals not only saves your health, but also your money and the planet.

For busy bees, a slow cooker is perfect, allowing for easy batch meals and meal prep. Check out our recipes for some inspiration!

Leave a comment: what steps will you take to protect your health and eliminate these ingredients? I look forward to responding!

Until next time, stay healthy

James


Frequently Asked Questions:

Are Chemicals in Food Bad for You?

Chemicals in food come in many forms. These can be harmful, depending on the type, the amount, and the individual. Toxins such as pesticides and TRANS fats are bad for you. However, not all chemicals (such as some natural thickeners) are necessarily bad for everyone.

What are Natural Food Additives?

‘Natural Food Additives’ refers to chemicals extracted from natural products ranging from plants to animals alike. These are used much like their artificial counterparts: as preservatives, thickeners, flavourings, and so on. They can still be highly modified into forms not naturally found in our food, and some may cause side effects.

8 Replies to “11 of The Worst Ingredients in Food – and Tips to Avoid Them!”

    • I appreciate the comment Paul, glad to hear it! I’m sure the information here will help you – there’s a lot to learn, but just some simple principles can easily make a healthy diet. Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll get back straight to you!

      Thank you for reading,
      James

  • There is so much information going around these days about all the supposedly bad things that we eat and drink.

    The reality is that most of us are unlikely to ever change our habits to embrace all of the changes that articles such as this one encourage us to.

    Much more useful would be to highlight one or two of the highest impacting offenders and focus just on them.

    Sugar seems to be the popular bad boy around the world these days, and some countries have even implemented ‘sugar taxes’ on certain products, though I suspect that has more to do with being an ‘easy’ new source of revenue rather than arising out of governments’ concern about the health of their citizens.

    Thanks for a comprehensive and informative post.

    • Thank you for showing your interest, Frank! I know where you’re coming from and – in fact – am already ahead!

      This list is called an “Ultimate Guide” because it contains an in-depth look at all of these ingredients. The purpose is to educate and encourage change, but also to be comprehensive in showcasing some of the benefits of a whole food diet.

      In the plans already are articles for the specific ingredients here, which will aim to break things down further and provide that focus on the worst of the worst and the steps we can all take to steer clear!

      Great comment, thanks,
      James

  • It does make most sense the need to avoid certain toxins and ingredients while pursuing a healthy diet. Otherwise, toxic substances/ingredients can lead to a lot of health problems.

    Thank you for all the information you provided that will help us pursue a healthy diet.

    • Indeed! You’re certainly right. These toxins and ingredients make up a surprising amount of some diets, even hiding in foods marketed as healthy. As important as it is to eat the right foods, we need to avoid the wrong ones to protect our health.

      Thanks for commenting!
      James

  • What an informative article! I sometimes struggle to even pronounce half the ingredients on some food items. Additionally, if there’s a large list of ingredients, it’s also a cause of concern for me!

    Sharon

    • I know exactly what you mean! When it comes to eating real food – something that’s “healthy and honest” – the fewer the ingredients, the better. I think this list goes to show that.

      Thanks for your comment. ๐Ÿ™‚
      James

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