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The Dirty 7 | 7 Ingredients You Don't Want in Your Food

Although our diets should be rich in whole, natural foods as much as possible, sometimes processed foods have a time and a place in our day-to-day lives.

Even with these types of products, however, a little discernment can make the best of this selection. If you do consume processed foods, there are some unique ingredients you should watch out for!

At Life Time, we’ve identified the following ingredients as the dirty seven. These seven food additives should be on your radar when choosing processed foods. Read on to learn our top seven as well as why and how you should avoid them!

1. High Fructose Corn Syrup

As known as corn sugar, HFCS has gotten a lot of attention over the past few years. 

Deemed to be a main cause of the obesity epidemic, we are consuming more HFCS than ever before. HFCS starts out as cornstarch and then is converted to liquid syrup by the use of enzymes and acids in a food science lab. 

Because it's cheaper than real sugar and doesn’t have the stigma of sugar in its name, food manufacturers have opted to use it as an additive to sweeten their food. But don’t be fooled.... Just because it isn’t table sugar doesn't mean it's better or healthier for you.

Some potential effects of high fructose consumption include non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, digestive distress, increased levels of triglycerides and increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes or metabolic syndrome.  Those are just a few.

2. Trans Fats (hydrogenated and partially-hydrogenated oils)

Trans fat made its first appearance over 100 years ago, introduced as the very first man-made fat in our food supply.

They are created by taking a vegetable oil (e.g. soybean, cottonseed, etc.) and putting it through a process called hydrogenation, which adds hydrogen to that liquid oil, turning it into an artificial, solid food ingredient.  By doing this, the fat becomes a preservative, making processed foods last longer as well as giving them a more irresistible taste and texture.

These foods are your typical highly processed convenience foods, including stick margarine, peanut butter, baked goods, microwave popcorn and fried restaurant foods. They tend to be overconsumed because of how easily they go down without filling you up.

There is no safe consumable amount of trans fat. Studies over and again have linked it to raising your LDL (bad) cholesterol and lowering your HDL (good) cholesterol, as well as increasing risk for obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart attack and even cancer. 

Make sure you avoid it at all costs, and check for it in the ingredient list first, versus looking at the "Nutrition Facts" panel. Food companies are allowed to sneak it in their food in smaller amounts, yet still claim “trans fat free” or “zero trans fat” on the label. If you find hydrogenated or partially-hydrogenated oil in the ingredient list, make sure you do not consume that product.

3. Artificial Preservatives

Artificial preservatives are chemicals that are added to foods to make them last longer. 

For centuries, canning, freezing or even drying have been methods for reducing the spoilage of food from bacteria and/or mold. Some natural food additives, such as olive oil, salt, or even vinegar were used to help keep food longer.

Fast forward to present time, and we find artificial preservatives that have only been around a few decades or even a few years! Not only are these ingredients synthetic when comparing to the natural preserving methods, but they cost less money and thereby keep our popular processed foods low in cost (but high in health price!).

When looking at the health risk of consuming artificial preservatives, the cost differential is astonishing. These synthetic food additives have been linked to hyperactivity, cancerous tumors, skin and eye irritation and asthmatic problems. 

Many other countries have banned their use, although they can be found regularly in the center aisles of grocery stores in America. Don’t take the risk. Limit the amount of processed foods you buy, and when you do, buy products that use natural ingredients for preserving such as salt.

Avoid foods that have any of the following in their ingredient lists: nitrites, nitrates, benzoates, sorbates, propionates, sulfites, BHA, and BHT.

4. Hormones/Antibiotics

Consumers should know that livestock farming practices have drastically changed over the last century. 

No longer able to graze the land and act like animals, conventional farming confines and crams livestock into feedlots, often feeding them a non-traditional diet of corn, soy and grains. 

Because of these close quarters, disease spreads rapidly and increases the need for antibiotics. Animals are also often given hormones to encourage rapid growth and thereby increase turnover.

The spread of these farming practices corresponds with increasing hormonal imbalances in humans as well as the rise of "superbugs," illnesses that have become antibiotic resistant.

When you choose meats without added hormones or antibiotics, you not only decrease your exposure to those byproducts, but you support the humane and ethical treatment of the animals themselves. Look for beef, chicken and eggs marked as grass-fed, pasture-raised or cage-free with the statement of no antibiotics or hormone added on the label.  

5. Bleached Flour

Also known as chemical flour, bleached flour has become an industry standard in America. Bleaching agents (such as chlorine gas or benzoyl peroxide) provide a shortcut to aging and whitening fresh milled flour.

What’s the problem? Well, bleaching agents alone can be highly irritating to our bodies, not to mention lethal and dangerous to inhale.

There is also a controversial byproduct, called alloxan, that is created from the bleaching process and can be left in the flour. Scientists consider alloxan a toxin and use it to produce diabetes in laboratory animals. This is a big reason why China and countries in Europe have banned the use of bleached flour in their food system.

It's also important to note that there have never been studies on how bleached flour (and its byproducts) can affect our bodies in the long term, nor have experts deemed any particular amount safe for use.

Bleached flour is typically found in starchier foods, such as breads, bakery items, pizza crusts and crackers.  Check the ingredient list, and if it contains bleached flour, benzoyl peroxide or chlorine, put the food back on the shelf. If buying flour in bulk, purchase the ones that say unbleached and unbromated on the packaging. 

6. Artificial Colors

Coloring is added to improve the look and appeal of a food. This can be done naturally with other foods, such as using the orange color of a sweet potato or the red of a beet.

Yet many food companies utilize synthetic chemicals to dye their foods. Most often found in products with no nutritional value (e.g. candy, desserts, soda, chips, etc.), artificial colors can show up in many other foods like cereals, canned fruit, yogurts or even low-quality multivitamins!

So what’s wrong with artificial colors? They’ve been linked to hyperactivity in children as well as an increased risk for tumors, certain cancer, and allergy-like reactions in humans.

Banned in some European countries, artificial colors are still allowed to be used in food sold in the United States. Check the ingredient list for the most commonly used colors:  Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Red 3, Blue 1, Blue 2, Orange B, Citrus Red 2 and Green 3. 

7. Added/Processed Sugars

Sugar is more readily available in our diets than ever before. In fact, the average American consumes between 90 and 180 pounds of sugar per year! What’s even more astonishing? A century ago we were consuming less than one pound.

America definitely has a sweet tooth, and food companies know it, often adding the cheap, addictive ingredient to many foods that naturally would have none. 

But our high intake of sugar is rapidly leading to related health problems, including diabetes and obesity. To significantly lower your risk, avoid buying foods with added sugar. This means avoiding sweet foods, such as candy, soda and bakery items, but also checking the ingredient list of any other processed foods you’d typically put in your shopping cart. 

Sugar is infamous for showing up in foods you wouldn’t consider sweet, such as pasta sauce, peanut butter or even popcorn. Also know that sugar has many disguises on food labels, including agave nectar, fructose syrup or even juice concentrate - just to name a few!

Let this list be a starting point for you and your family’s health! Many times, when food companies use one of these ingredients, you'll find others in this list right along with it. The only way you’ll know the composition of a food product for sure is by reading the ingredient list for each food. 

Be a smart shopper and stick to a foundation of whole, natural foods as much as you can, and be vigilant in scrutinizing any processed food you choose!

Would you like more guidance on healthy food choice and ingredient labels? Talk with one of our registered dietitians today. Thanks for reading.

In health, Anika Christ – Senior Program Manager of Life Time Weight Loss

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


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Reader Comments (20)

Good information to keep in mind when shopping for groceries. However, if I shouldn't be "pastry" raised, I certainly won't let my beef or chicken be "pastry" raised! ;)

February 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarolyn L

Thanks for catching that Carolyn. We corrected it. We wouldn't want pastry-raised beef or chicken either, but love it when they are pasture-raised!

February 6, 2012 | Registered CommenterLifeTime WeightLoss

It is so interesting to me that being a developed and top ranking county in the world we allow food manufacturers to poison us with items that have been banned in may other countries, such as Europe and as close as Canada, as they have shown to cause illnesses such as cancer, just very concerning!!

Some of the artificial colors, by the way, are manufactured on the most polluted river in China so you may want to think about it twice before you buy another produce that contains essentially poison. Great article!

February 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTina81

After reading this article...I just threw out a bag (half a bag actually) of CHEETOS PUFFS!

It had 3 (as near as I could make out by the label) out of the dirty seven.I agree with Tina81 How do they get away with poisining us?

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterGeorge

It is my understanding that Chicken isn't allowed to have 'hormones added'. But the producers will use "hormone free' all over the labels so that we don't even think about or question all of the antibiotics the animals have been fed in their short lives.

They also advertise 'all natural' yet they FILL their chicken meat with a sodium like solution that tenderizes the meat and also causes us to have swelling and joint pains! (Possibly a form of MSG--monosodium glutamate.)

Cage-free iwth no tenderizers added is the way to healthy chicken meats.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRunner

This is very educational! The best way to go is to go "Organic". I may add, cooking all your meal is ideal over process food in a bag.

February 12, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMag98

Another great article from Lifetime. It would be nice if you made mention of the differences between naturally occurring trans fats (meat / dairy) and the hydrogenated garbage that big food america poisons the population with. Disappointing that so many products on the shelves and even most girl scout cookies, tout no trans fats but use partially hydrogenated oils - the despicable truth - yuck! Not to be a hypocrite, I do love Samoas, sinfully good, but what's wrong with butter?

February 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterWholeMilkRocks

Yes, we all know what to do. We just gotta do it! This is more reinforcement to read the labels of the products we buy carefully.

February 15, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdi

HFCS should not be consumed in excess. Neither should cane sugar, or beet sugar. But it has never been established as the primary cause of the obesity epidemic. In fact, while obesity continues to increase, HFCS (and sugar consumption in general) has plateaued. It is irresponsible to scare people into believing that single foods are the cause of complex diseases.

The author has misrepresented the scientific literature in a way that disappoints me, as I see she is a registered dietitian. I am also a registered dietitian, with a PhD in nutrition. While I don't love HFCS, the fact is that it is no higher in fructose composition than is sucrose. In fact, HFCS has a slightly lower concentration of fructose in it's most prevalent source, soda pop. So HFCS does not uniquely contribute to non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, digestive distress, increased levels of triglycerides or increased risk to develop Type II diabetes or metabolic syndrome.

All that said, I do agree with the gist of the article, which is that foods should be whole/natural. Keep the foods we eat as close to the way nature made them as possible. Most of the time.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDiane Cabelof

Why aren't artificial sweeteners on this list? I would rather consume "real sugar" any day and I believe that artificial sweeteners are a major contributor to obesity in this country, zero calorie or not!

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAgainstArtificialSweeteners

Great article! How about something on the prevalence of GMOs in food in the U.S.? Anything that contains canola, corn or soy may be a genetically modified food. What are the long-term health effects of eating this? In Europe, most GMO foods are banned. Did you know that most cookies, cakes, and chocolates contain soy (soy lecithin). Opt for freshly harvested single ingredients as much as possible....

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterFrances Phillips

Now seriously guys, if you take away all those ingredients... what is the average human supposed to eat?

Here are a couple of quick observations...

1. We'll be left with virtually nothing to buy in the average grocery store.
2. Food cost, without the use of these products, are astronomical. Just go shopping at Whole Foods and see what your bill looks like!.
3. Compliance to a diet free of all of these items becomes virtually impossible once you step out of your home.

Nice idea, but not practical. The above ingredients are going nowhere any time soon!

How else will mass food producers sell us "food"?

I pity the fool who tries to eat perfect!

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMr. T

But isn't doing something better than doing nothing? It's great to be an informed consumer.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandra

Your reply suggests action... unfortunately, most can't/won't act on this great information.

As I said, we're looking at limited access, and/or deep pockets to avoid these ingredients in modern America.

And then try eating out, with the exception for high end whole foods restaurants.

You'll certainly find every single ingredient in almost every single dish at chain restaurants (yuck).

I'm not disagreeing... but even with knowledge, we need a wholesale change to how Americans buy/eat food.

Without changes to legislation, nothing will happen. But God forbid we ban anything... restrictions on freedom and all.

Even more to the point, I'd like to think we can create demand as consumers. However, consumer demand from those who can afford "clean food", doesn't create demand for those who can't. There's no trickle down here...

Again, no matter how good the information is, if little can be done with it... it's just information.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMr. T

Great article on the Dirty 7. I would also add, foods that are genetically modified GMO. This is a tough one because they are all over in our food supply. We can however, start refusing to buy these GMO products one step at a time. This is just another reason why I use the Shaklee Protein drinks. All of their protein drinks whey and soy are GMO free. Anytime you take a product on a daily basis, it is important to know the quality, safety and efficacy.

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPam

We're proud to be organic / natural consumers 95% of the time. It is true that most of the dirty 7s are out there, but at least we can try to have healthy lives within our homes:
1. Do you buy vegetables and fruits? All natural, really, you don't have to buy them packaged, fresh fruit and vegetables are everywhere. So, if you decide to get rid of the bad stuff, you'll be eating all natural too.
2. I agree that Whole Foods is expensive, but, if we're really concerned about our diets we should put an effort on spending a little bit more than we do with junk food, at least is how I see it for my family, I don't want them to die of cancer or have diabetes. And, the secret to not buying packaged stuff is simple "cook at home and love it". Buy fresh ingredients and spend some time cooking great simple foods that you don't have to take out of a box and toss in the microwave. Also, look for other alternatives for buying, if you think Whole Foods is too expensive, there are other options like local markets and Trader Joe's, they keep your budget almost the same without setting foot in places like Walmart.
3. We can carry lunch to work, it is not that difficult and most of the offices provide a microwave to warm your food. You can still go out to restaurants from time to time, it is difficult to think that there is no possible strategy for eating at home everyday. We all have time to watch TV or surf the internet, why not take some of that time to cook and take care of ourselves?

I only agree partially with Mr.T on number 2, the other 2 depend only on you to change. How do you think our ancestors lived? (And don't go too far away, Anika says artificial preservatives date back just 10-12 years).

We can all make an effort in changing for our own good!!!!!

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMariam and F

We live in a society that demands efficiency, which we are certainly good at. However, what good does efficiency do if everything gives you cancer?

February 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKamran

Please be careful about being one sided in your criticism of Ameriican Agriculture
1.We have the safest, least cost food in the world.
2.We continually live longer healthier lives except for those that eat too much of the wrong things and/or do not get enough exercise.
3.Todays farmer is trying to feed an ever growing world population and are in the process of modifiying production practices that appear to be better for the animals, but actually can in some cases cause more pain and suffering to them.
3.Meat eggs and milk do not contain antibiotics due to strict guidelines and monitoring.
4.Meat eggs and milk do not contain any hormones other than what the animal naturally produces.
5.There have been numerous studies done in many countries to evaluate organic and natural food sources that show no true benefits, this however has been a great marketing tool to sell food products, even though it usually creates inefficiencies and waste.
6.People make the choice to buy these nitch products to make themselves feel better.

February 17, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKenny

@Diane: The indications are pretty clear that the rise in obesity has increased right along with our increased consumption of sugar and other processed carbohydrates. The issue with HFCS is that it's found in most processed foods, not that it's significantly worse than sucrose, or table sugar. Both should be limited or avoided, as well as other sugars high in fructose. Our high consumption of HFCS DOES contribute to the development of fatty liver because it increases our consumption of fructose. I'd recommend checking out Dr. Robert Lustig's presentation on YouTube. Dr. Lustig is one of the leading researchers on fructose and its effects on our health. The video is at the bottom of the Sweet Poison article (

@AgainstArtificialSweeteners: We do not recommend people use artificial sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, etc, but it's not because they can lead to obesity. There is not strong evidence for that, though in a small percentage of people, they may be led to stronger cravings because of the sweetness artificial sweeteners provide. That said, we would not recommend people choose sugar instead. There are natural, non-calorie or low-calorie options that are much better such as stevia, xylitol, erythritol, etc.

@Frances Phillips: Great point on GMOs. That's a huge topic we hope to cover in the future

@Mr. T: I disagree about your statements that it's not worth trying. Avoiding these foods can be very affordable. Meat, vegetables, nuts, and fruit can be very affordable, and people will eat less of quality food than they do junk food. Eating well for long-term health might mean spending less on other stuff. You also say each of these ingredients are found at chain restaurants. Again, you can choose where you go and what you select on the menu. They all offer some kind of meat and vegetable. You're correct that all the information is meaningless without action, but we hope that people are taking action, and based on many of the other comments, it would seem that they are, at least in this small subgroup of the population.

@Pam: Agreed. It's the same with Life Time nutritional products, though we chose not to create a soy-based protein powder as we don't feel it's as good a source of vegetarian protein as the blend of rice and pea protein.

February 18, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterTom Nikkola


February 20, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSTEVEN WOLVOVSKY
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