What's the one food you refuse to eat? Peas, tofu, liver and onions? Whatever it is, it's probably because you don't like the way it tastes, not necessarily because it contains ingredients suspected of causing cancer or because it was picked by farmers wearing Hazmat suits. Yet, there are still a lot of those foods on store shelves, and food-industry insiders, who know what goes on behind the scenes, refuse to eat them.
Related: The 11 Healthiest Whole Grains
We polled some of those insiders--people who know the business and work daily to evict pesticides, genetically modified organisms, animal cruelty, social injustice, and unhealthy foods from the food supply--to find out what they know about the dark side of "convenience" foods and what they will eat. Take note so you, too, can avoid the worst of what grocery stores have to offer.
Philip Landrigan, MD, professor of pediatrics and professor and chair of preventive medicine at Mount Sinai School of Medicine
The Problem: One of Dr. Landrigan's No. 1 warnings to women pregnant or looking to become pregnant? "Make avoiding mercury in fish a priority," he says. Swordfish is notoriously high in the heavy metal, a potent neurotoxin that can damage developing children and even trigger heart attacks in adults. Aside from obvious health concerns, swordfish is often overfished and some of the gear commonly used to wrangle in swordfish often kills turtles, seabirds, and sharks.
The Solution: For a healthy omega-3 brain boost, look for fish that are low in contaminants and have stable populations, such as wild-caught Alaskan salmon, Atlantic mackerel, or pole- or troll-caught Pacific albacore tuna. Got a more adventurous palate? Try snakehead fish to satisfy your fish craving and improve the environment. The invasive species lives on land and water, where it wipes out important frogs, birds, and other critters. Snakehead fish is popping up on some restaurant menus, and the taste and texture is about identical to swordfish.
Robert Kenner, director of Food Inc. and founder of FixFood.org
The Problem: While filming Food Inc., Kenner says he wanted to film strawberry farmers applying pesticides to their fields. "The workers wear these suits to protect themselves from the dozens and dozens of known dangerous pesticides applied to strawberries," he says. "When I saw this, I thought to myself, if this is how berries are grown, I don't really want to eat them anymore. I haven't been able to eat a nonorganic strawberry ever since." Unfortunately, for the food-concerned public, he wasn't able to get the shot of these farmers. "I guess they didn't think it looked too appetizing."
The Solution: Opt for organic! The Environmental Working Group, which analyzes U.S. Department of Agriculture pesticide-residue data, has found 13 different pesticide residues on chemically grown strawberries.
Isaac Eliaz, MD, integrative health expert and founder of The Amitabha Medical Clinic and Healing Center in Sebastopol, CA
The Problem: Dr. Eliaz stays away from any diet soda or foods, sugar-free candies, and gum containing artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame K, and neotame, among others. "The safety data on these sweeteners is shrouded in controversy and conflicts of interest with the manufacturers of these chemical compounds," Dr. Eliaz warns. "Independent research strongly suggests that when metabolized in the body, these sweeteners can cause health-related issues and problems related to metabolism and weight gain, neurological diseases, joint pain, digestive problems, headaches, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, chemical toxicity, and cancer, among others."
The Solution: If you're craving a soda but want to avoid the shady sweeteners, fake food dyes, and preservatives found in popular brands, try a bottle of Steaz zero-calorie green tea soda or Bionade, a fermented soda that's majorly popular in Europe.
Joel Salatin, sustainable farmer and author of This Ain't Normal, Folks
The Problem: McDonald's isn't just about food-it's about food mentality, according to Salatin. "It represents the pinnacle of factory-farming and industrial food," he says. "The economic model is utterly dependent on stockholders looking for dividends without regards to farm profitability or soil development."
Fast food typically is loaded with all sorts of the ingredients mentioned earlier in our list-genetically engineered corn, food dyes, artificial sweeteners, and other bad actors in the food supply. The type of farming that supports this type of food business relies on harmful chemicals that not only threaten human health, but also soil health.
The Solution: Learn to cook! You might be surprised to find that paying extra up front for a pasture-raised chicken can be cheaper than buying prepared fast-food chicken. For instance, cooking a chicken and then boiling down the bones for a rich, disease-fighting stock can yield up to three meals for a family! (Here's how to make homemade stock.) Find sustainable farmers at LocalHarvest.org.
Frederick vom Saal, PhD, professor of biological sciences at the University of Missouri
The Problem: The resin linings of tin cans contain bisphenol-A, or BPA, a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Studies show that the BPA in most people's bodies exceeds the amount that suppresses sperm production or causes chromosomal damage to the eggs of animals. "You can get 50 micrograms of BPA per liter out of a tomato can, and that's a level that is going to impact people, particularly the young," says vom Saal. "I won't go near canned tomatoes."
The Solution: Choose tomatoes in glass bottles (which do not need resin linings), such as the brands Eden Organic and Bionaturae. You can also get several types in Tetra Pak boxes, such as Trader Joe's and Pomi.
William Davis, MD, cardiologist and author of the New York Times best-seller Wheat Belly
The Problem: Modern wheat is nothing like the grain your mother or grandmother consumed. Today, wheat barely resembles its original form, thanks to extensive genetic manipulations of the 1960s and '70s to increase yields. "You cannot change the basic characteristics of a plant without changing its genetics, biochemistry, and its effects on humans who consume it," Dr. Davis notes.
In his book, Dr. Davis makes the case that modern-day wheat is triggering all sorts of health problems, everything from digestive diseases like celiac and inflammatory bowel disease to acid reflux, obesity, asthma, and skin disorders. "If there is a food that yields extravagant, extraordinary, and unexpected benefits when avoided, it is bread," says Dr. Davis. "And I don't mean white bread; I mean all bread: white, whole wheat, whole grain, sprouted, organic, French, Italian, fresh, day-old...all of it."
The Solution: Try eliminating bread from your diet for a few weeks to see if you note health improvements. When you do choose grains, look to things like quinoa, buckwheat, millet, and wild rice, but in smaller quantities (less than a half cup) because these can also trigger high blood sugar, Dr. Davis says.
Michael Pollan, author of numerous books and articles on the food system including The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food and Food Rules
The Problem: Cattle raised in filthy conditions, pumped full of growth hormones and fed diets composed mostly of genetically modified corn are three major reasons humane, grass-fed ground beef is a better alternative for your burger. But they aren't the only ones, says Pollan. While a steak or roast usually comes from a single animal, processors of ground beef combine meat from hundreds of animals. "This vastly increases the risk of contamination," he says. USDA scientists have found dangerous levels of disease-causing bacteria in over 50 percent of ground beef samples they've tested.
The Solution: "I love hamburgers, but only eat them when they're grass-fed and ground by a butcher," Pollan says.
Maryam Henein and George Langworthy, directors of the documentary Vanishing of the Bees
The Problem: Today's corn plants are more like little pesticide factories with roots. Most of the nation's corn supply is genetically engineered to either produce its own pesticide supply within the plant or withstand heavy sprayings of chemicals, which wind up inside of the food. That's problematic not just for bees, but for people, too. "I avoid corn because most is genetically modified, and on top of that, most of the seeds are treated with systemic pesticides that are killing our bees," says Henein. "And let's not be fooled--the sublethal effects of these pesticides also slowly impair our health."
The Solution: In one way or another, corn is present in the vast majority of processed foods. From ketchup to salad dressing, and even bread, it's hard to escape corn ingredients. One to look out for? "I always try to avoid foods containing high-fructose corn syrup," says Langworthy. "Not only is it unhealthy, but the pesticides used in the production of the corn is detrimental to honeybees and other pollinators."
To avoid genetically engineered corn, which has never been tested for long-term impacts on human health, choose organic or Non-GMO Verified foods.
Drew Ramsey, MD, assistant clinical professor of Psychiatry at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons and coauthor of The Happiness Diet
The Problem: The right kind of chocolate serves not only as a sweet treat but a brain-boosting superfood, too. The problem is, white chocolate's health profile is blank. "The data on the health benefits of cacao is pretty awesome," says Dr. Ramsey. "Much of this is due to a set of amazing phytonutrients that can increase blood flow to the brain, protect blood vessels, and boost mood and focus. White chocolate is missing all this goodness."
The Solution: Indulging in a chocolate treat? Look for organic versions from companies like Theo and NibMor.
Maria Rodale, CEO of Rodale Inc. and author of Organic Manifesto
The Problem: Ironically, there's a lot of evidence that suggest using artificial sweeteners, which have zero calories, is just as bad for your waistline as using regular, high-calorie sugar. For instance, research from the University of Texas has found that mice fed the artificial sweetener aspartame had higher blood sugar levels (which can cause you to overeat) than mice on an aspartame-free diet. Not only are they bad for your health, scientists have detected artificial sweeteners in treated wastewater, posing unknown risks to fish and other marine life. Plus, as Rodale says, "They're unnatural, nonorganic, taste horrible, and lead to all sorts of bad health consequences, false expectations, and short-term strategic thinking."
The Solution: Refined white sugar isn't any healthier, but you can replace it with small amounts of nutritional sweeteners, including honey, blackstrap molasses, and maple syrup, all of which have high levels of vitamins and minerals.
Doug Powell, PhD, professor of food safety at Kansas State University and author of the BarfBlog food-safety website
The Problem: Sprouts have been the source of so many major food recalls that they're not worth the risk, Powell says. Whether bean or broccoli, alfalfa or pea, sprouts have been at the center of at least 40 significant outbreaks of foodborne illness over the past 20 years. They're often found to be contaminated with salmonella, E. coli, and listeria; they're vulnerable to contamination because the seeds require moist, warm conditions in order to sprout--conditions that are ideal for bacteria to multiply.
The Solution: Get the crunch of sprouts--without the added bacteria--by shredding cabbage or carrots onto your sandwiches. If you really enjoy the flavor of sprouts, cook them first.
Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women's Voices for the Earth, a nonprofit that advocates for environmental health issues that directly affect women
The Problem: Diacetyl, a chemical used in butter flavoring, is used in a lot of fake butter flavorings, despite the fact that the chemical is so harmful to factory workers that it's known to cause an occupational disease called "popcorn lung," Scranton says. After news of the chemical got out to the popcorn-eating public, companies started replacing diacetyl with another additive--which can actually turn into diacetyl under certain conditions, she adds. Neither chemical is disclosed on microwave-popcorn bags because the exact formulations of flavorings are considered trade secrets. "It's a classic example of the need for better chemical regulation and improved transparency on the chemicals used in our food and other household products," she says.
The Solution: Make your own popcorn using real butter. Pop it on the stovetop in a pot, or go an easier route: Put a small handful of kernels into a brown paper lunch bag and stick the bag in the microwave. The kernels will pop just like those fake-butter-flavored kernels in standard microwave popcorn bags. When they're done, pour some melted organic butter over them. "Makes pretty good popcorn at a fraction of the cost!" Scranton says.
Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest
The Problem: Health advocates have tried for years to get the Food and Drug Administration to ban food dyes, based on small studies linking them to hyperactivity in children and cancer in animals, and that's one reason Jacobson avoids them. Red 3 has caused cancer in lab rats, and Yellow 5 and Yellow 6 may contain cancer-causing contaminants. But mainly, he says, he avoids them on principle. "I just don't like eating synthetic chemicals and the oftentimes synthetic foods in which they're used." His group criticizes companies that use food dyes to make foods appear healthier than they are and to replace truly healthy ingredients--in a recent report on the nutritional quality of fruit juices, the center noted that Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast contains no berry and cherry juice but lots of the artificial dye, Red 40.
The Solution: Read labels anytime you're buying a prepackaged food. Food dyes can crop up in some really unexpected places, even healthy foods like cheese and yogurt.
Dave Zinczenko, author of the Eat This, Not That series of books
The Problem: "No matter where you go, the ice cream sundaes made in most chain restaurants have a couple things in common--namely, supersized portions and an ingredient list a mile long," he says. "All you really need for ice cream is milk, sugar, and maybe a little vanilla, but somehow these places are loading it up with corn syrup, cellulose gum, and vegetable shortening." In addition to being unhealthy, those additives are usually derived from genetically modified corn and soy.
The Solution: Go local, says Zinczenko. Small-batch ice cream from local stores is less likely to be some industry Franken-food creation. Or, for totally homemade sundaes, you could try making your own ice cream. "A killer caramel sauce can be made with just sugar, butter, and heat, and you'll never have to wonder what kind of chemicals you're loading up on," he says. "Plus, you'll control your portion size, which means you can indulge in moderation without widening your waistline."