Food manufacturers sure don’t make it easy for consumers to shop conscientiously. We have to do homework just to decipher the nutrition labels on the backs of boxes and cans, otherwise they’re just a mess of percentages and multi-syllabic words. Even just trying to avoid certain ingredients is hard enough; manufacturers want you to buy their stuff, so they don’t want to make questionable content too obvious. As a result, ingredient lists on processed foods are long, jumbled, and full of words you’d need a science background to understand. Fortunately, figuring out whether foods have ingredients we don’t want—like MSG, sugar, or trans fat—isn’t as intimidating once we know what to look out for. Unfortunately, considering that something as simple as sugar has over twenty names, we clearly have our work cut out for us.
Monosodium glutamate by any other name is still MSG, an additive that gives food a salty, savory flavor (also known as umami, the fifth taste). You can find it in any number of packaged goods, canned items, and snacks, but you won’t always find it listed as “monosodium glutamate” in the ingredients. If you suffer from MSG symptom complex—having physical reactions, like headaches, nausea, and heart palpitations—or you just want to avoid suspicious additives altogether, look out for these other names for MSG.
- Autolyzed yeast
- Hydrolyzed flours or proteins
- Textured protein
- Sodium/calcium caseinate
- Glutamic acid
- Vegetable protein extract
Some ingredients aren’t MSG per se, but contain some amount of glutamate, which can cause similar health problems if you have MSG symptom complex.
- Malted barely
- Protein powders (whey, soy, etc.)
- Soy sauce
- Rice syrup
- Guar gum
- Modified corn starch
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that men and women eat no more than nine and six teaspoons of sugar per day, respectively. However, the AHA also reports that Americans consume about twenty-two teaspoons of sugar a day on average. A good amount of that comes from hidden sugars; that is, sugars in processed foods like crackers and condiments. Sugar falls under many different labels, so it’s all too easy to get your daily sugar quota and then some by not reading ingredient lists carefully.
- Sucrose, fructose, dextrose, etc. (anything ending in “ose”)
- Corn syrup
- High fructose corn syrup
- Maple syrup
- Evaporated cane juice
- Chicory/carob/inulin/tapioca syrup
- Cane juice crystals
As of 2008, the FDA requires every food manufacturer to list the amount of trans fats in their products if it exceeds more than .5 grams. While that’s a laudable effort on the FDA’s part, it still means that products can boast “No trans fat!” even when there are trace amounts. Since trans fat consumption is linked to increased risk of heart and cholesterol problems, any amount should be considered unsafe. And since producers can fudge the truth about whether it’s even in food or not, we should be even more vigilant about checking the ingredients.
- Hydrogenated/partially hydrogenated oils (if it says “fully” or “completely” hydrogenated, that means it’s not a trans fat source)
There are small amounts of trans fat that occur naturally in animal products like meat and dairy, but it’s the kind that occur in processed goods that we need to worry about more.
The only way to recognize every item in an ingredient list is to eliminate all processed foods from our diets, but that also means cutting out a lot more than even the most health-conscious might realize. How many of us can go the rest of our lives without eating chips, cereal, or even bread? At the very least, we can avoid the products that have particularly bad ingredients in their labels. Processed foods without trans fat, excess sugar, and MSG do exist; it just takes some detective work to find them, but on the plus side, we won’t get headaches, endure sugar crashes, or raise our bad cholesterol levels in the process.