If you saw "poison ivy" listed as an ingredient in your favorite salad mix, would you eat it? Probably not. But poison ivy is natural, right? Who cares if it gives you a heinous rash and makes you miserable? The food industry might as well apply the same logic to all the other so-called "natural" ingredients it tries to sneak into processed foods.
Ingredients made from seaweed, palm trees, and fruit juice may have a healthy halo, but they actually come with more health risks than benefits--no matter how natural they sound.
PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHNATHAN KANTOR/GETTY
Behind the label: You may not have any idea what this weird-sounding ingredient is at first glance, but it's derived from seaweed and used in dozens of so-called "natural," and even some organic, foods to keep ingredients from separating. The problem is, it's been pegged to inflammation, which itself can lead to chronic diseases such as inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and arteriosclerosis.
Related: 4 Reasons To Drink More (Organic) Milk
Your move: Carrageenan is used mostly in dairy products, so read labels carefully.
Behind the label: The caramel candies you ate as a kid got their coloring from caramelized sugar, which turns brown as its heated. The caramel coloring you find in your soda—not so much. It's created when sugar is heated with ammonium compounds, and the process creates a cancer-causing byproduct called 4-MI, which exists as a contaminant in caramel food coloring at varying levels. Coca-Cola recently switched to a lower-MI formulation of its caramel coloring, but tests from the Center for Science in the Public Interest recently found sodas sold across the country with widely varying, and dangerous, levels.
Your move: Do you really need that soda? After all, cancer-causing contaminants are just one of many disturbing side-effects of soda, which include kidney problems and liver fat. If you do need your bubbly, opt for one of these 8 Healthy Sodas.
Behind the label: Palm oil became the go-to replacement for partially hydrogenated vegetable oils, after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) instituted trans-fat-labeling rules on processed foods, but that replacement didn't do much for public health. A number of studies suggest that palm oil is as bad for your heart as the trans fats hidden in by partially hydrogenated oils. The most recent, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, found that it raised bad LDL cholesterol levels as much as partially hydrogenated soybean oil. In addition to its heart-damaging health problems, enormous tracts of rainforests and peat bogs have been razed or filled in to make room for palm oil plantations. Peat bogs are ecologically valuable, because they sequester globe-warming carbon dioxide, and rainforest destruction has led to the endangerment of 140 animal species in Indonesia and another 50 in Malaysia, the world's two largest producers of palm oil.
Your move: Palm oil is mostly used in crackers, cookies, and other baked goods, so scrutinize labels. Safflower or sunflower oil are healthier and don't carry the problems associated with other genetically modified vegetable oils made from corn, canola and soy. If your favorite product does contain palm oil, call the manufacturer and ask how it was sourced. Some companies use palm oil produced under an industry group called the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil, which is trying to develop standards that would protect vital species habitats.
Behind the label: "Evaporated cane juice" may sound benign enough, but it's essentially refined white sugar with a fancier name, according to naturopathic physician Andrew Weil, MD. It's not even really juice, but dried crystals that are left behind after raw sugar cane has been boiled. Those crystals then undergo additional processing, removing any vitamins and minerals that may have existed in the raw sugar cane. Because it isn't juice, the FDA has proposed new rules that would make the term illegal on food packages, opting instead for "sugar" or "dried cane syrup." The agency has even sent warning letters to juice manufacturers who use the term misleadingly, for instance, advertising a product as "100% juice."
Your move: When you do need processed foods, opt for those containing sweeteners with real nutritional value, such as real maple syrup, molasses, raw honey, and others that made our list of The 5 Best Sweeteners.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MITCH MANDEL
Behind the label: You probably see the words "fruit juice concentrate" on a jar of jam or in a fruit drink and think it's got to be healthier than sugar, right? Wrong. Apple, pear and white grape fruit juice concentrates are some of the most commonly used sweeteners added to foods, and they're simply empty calories, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. They're used as fat replacements, because their water content provides bulk, yet they still contain high levels of fructose, a form of sugar tied to heart problems and one that can actually lower your ability to remember things.
Your move: Fruit is "nature's candy" so eat it whole. The fructose levels are tempered by the added fiber, vitamins and minerals you get when downing whole fruits. When you do need processed foods, opt for those containing sweeteners with real nutritional value, such as real maple syrup, molasses, raw honey, and others that made our list of The 5 Best Sweeteners.
Behind the label: There's little redeeming nutritional value to HFCS, the ubiquitous sweetener added to everything from bread to salad dressing. It provides empty calories, which promote obesity, it's been linked to heart disease, and the manufacturing process has the potential to contaminate it with brain-damaging mercury. Yet HFCS still shows up in so-called "natural" foods. Back in 2008, the FDA decided that, due to the highly industrialized process used to create HFCS, using the sweetener in products labeled "natural" was deceptive and misleading. But after backlash from the Corn Refiners Association, the agency reversed that decision two months later.
Your move: Few nutritionists out there would agree with the Corn Refiners Association's assertion that HFCS is "natural," but since they don't make the rules, it's up to you to read labels. HFCS is very common in "low-fat" foods, so read ingredient lists.