3 Food Ingredients to Avoid No Matter What

3 Food Ingredients to Avoid No Matter What

My toddler likes "Blue Cookies" (so called because they’re fluorescent blue and likely have nothing remotely natural in them). And, she prefers them over my homemade peanut butter cookies (Seriously. Does she realize I used the blender for the first time, like, ever?).

Sometimes getting your kids to eat healthy food seems like an epic battle. Many times, it's just not worth the fight—but sometimes, it is. While letting your child eat Blue Cookies (or their equivalent) every once in a while won’t cause her to grow an extra ear or make you the #World'sWorstMom, some ingredients are worse than others. Here are three worth the effort to minimize in your children’s diet—and your own.

  • Added sugars are sugars and syrups that are not naturally occurring but added to processed and prepared foods and drinks. This includes white table sugar as well as brown sugar, honey, molasses, maple syrup, corn sugar, high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), sucrose and anything else ending in "-ose." Even though HFCS gets all the attention, our bodies metabolize all sugars similarly, causing blood sugar swings, obesity, diabetes and even fatty liver disease.
    Unfortunately, processed foods are often loaded with sugar. Even some seemingly nourishing snacks, like applesauce and yogurt, contain a significant amount of added sugar. Many breakfast cereals are also sweetened. Some even have three types of sugar listed among their top five ingredients and can contain as much as 50 percent sugar by weight.

    What to do: If added sugars, including HFCS, corn sugar, corn extract, fructose or sucrose are among the top five ingredients, enjoy the food as a dessert or treat every so often, rather than a healthy meal.
  • Trans fats and partially hydrogenated oils are no longer generally recognized as safe, according to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Some trans fat is found in fatty meats and dairy products, but the largest source for most people has been artificial trans fat found in foods that contain partially hydrogenated oil (PHO). This is formed when hydrogen is added to vegetable oil to make it solid at room temperature. Food manufacturers added PHOs to everything from microwave popcorn to frozen pizza and cake frosting as a cheap way to make processed foods more stable and improve their texture and shelf life. But PHOs can cause your LDL or “bad cholesterol” levels to rise while causing your HDL or “good cholesterol” levels to drop, which can increase your risk for heart disease. Even among teens, trans fats can lead to a buildup of plaque in the arteries. Trans fats are also linked to an increased risk for diabetes and obesity. There’s also some suggestion that trans fats may affect immunity and increase your risk for allergies and asthma.
    Due to these serious health concerns, the FDA issued a ban on the use of PHOs in all manufactured foods, which went into effect in June 2018. The new regulation doesn’t apply to some foods manufactured before the ban was implemented. These foods may remain on store shelves until January 2020—and some into 2021—so it's still important to check nutrition labels. Manufacturers are also allowed to include package labels that read "Trans Fat Free" on foods that contain 0.5g of trans fats of less per serving.

    What to do: Check your package labels, especially if you're buying margarine, pre-packaged snacks or baked goods. If it says "partially hydrogenated oils" on the ingredient list don’t bite—and don’t let your kids, either. Steer clear of fully hydrogenated oils, too. Not to be confused with PHOs, fully hydrogenated oils are a type of saturated fat, and the health effects of these particular oils—good or bad—aren’t yet known. In general, however, saturated fats can increase your heart disease risk. Instead, opt for monounsaturated fat, such as olive oil, and polyunsaturated fat, like sunflower oil, when cooking and baking.
  • Bisphenol A (BPA) isn’t actually a food ingredient, it’s a chemical that been used in many plastics, including food containers since the 1960s. In recent years however, its safety has been called into question by experts who contend that BPA can leach into food, posing serious health risks. The FDA's National Toxicology Program expressed "some concern about the potential effects of BPA on the brain, behavior and prostate gland in fetuses, infants and young children." (Yes. Their actual words). The chemical has since been banned from use in baby bottles and sippy cups.
    In addition, BPA exposure in children may be linked to cancer, obesity and metabolic diseases through a phenomenon known as "metabolic programming.” BPA exposure in utero has been linked to possible increased risks of asthma and behavioral problems. In a policy statement released by the American Academy of Pediatrics in August 2018, parents were urged to avoid using plastic containers whenever possible. These health concerns have been ongoing—but this chemical compound continues to be used in a wide variety of food storage containers.

    What to do: Don’t microwave food in plastic food containers—stick to glass when possible. You can purchase BPA-free containers, but research suggests that these plastics may have similar effects to BPA. Don’t store foods in "to-go" or takeout containers. Transfer leftovers to glass, porcelain or stainless steel bowls and dishes. Opt for fresh or frozen foods over canned goods when possible, since BPA can still be present in the lining of cans, or choose cans with a BPA-free label.

Being a mom is tough—so much to keep track of when you just want to keep your family safe. If you can minimize these three items, you’ll be doing just that.

But no matter what, your child will probably still want that blue cookie.

Medically reviewed in December 2018.

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