On a mission to help you understand exactly what exactly is in your food, and why it’s bad, we put together this list of the least nutritious foods on the planet that are so toxic, they just wreck your body.
1. Frozen Fish & Fish Products
Something fishy is going down in the frozen-food aisle. To help lower-quality fish retain moisture and to lessen the amount of water expelled during thawing, manufacturers soak fish in a bath of sodium tripolyphosphate (STPP)—as they do in Mrs. Paul’s Beer Battered Fillets. STPP is a suspected neurotoxin and registered pesticide that the FDA considers “generally recognized as safe” to eat. It might be GRAS, but manufacturers don’t need to use this potentially dangerous additive. According to a report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), “polyphosphates are not an essential ingredient of [frozen fish products].”
Other negative side effects of adding STPP to fish include significantly increasing the levels of sodium in your food—which can counteract the countless positive heart-health benefits of consuming fish in the first place—as well as increasing your intake of dietary phosphates, which are connected to increased risk of death from cardiovascular disease in patients with chronic kidney disease or prior heart problems, according to research in Archives of Internal Medicine.
Eat This! Instead: Europe, Canada, and other countries have limits on the total level of STPP allowed in seafood (0.1 to 0.5 percent), but the US has no such regulations. Companies aren’t required to label this additive, but some packaged products do. When in doubt, stay dry. Seafood labeled as “dry” have not been treated with STPP; seafood marked as “wet” has been soaked in it.
2. Fruit Yogurt
All those smiling models in yogurt commercials obviously haven’t checked out the ingredients list on their purportedly healthy snack. Most fruit-flavored yogurts on the market contain precious little actual fruit, sweetening their recipes with sugar instead. And those brilliant hues you thought were the result of fresh fruit in the recipe? They’re usually just from fruit juice concentrate. Another additive you have to watch is carrageenan: a plant-based emulsifier which studies have found to cause inflammation in those with gastrointestinal issues.
Eat This! Instead: Yogurt doesn’t have to be completely off the menu just because you’re trying to eat healthier. Plain, unsweetened yogurt is full of live cultures that can benefit your gut bacteria, boosting your immune system and potentially lowering your risk of everything from diabetes to depression. If you’re worried about the belly bloat that dairy can cause, coconut milk yogurt with live cultures tastes like the real stuff and has all the same benefits for your belly bacteria.
3. Bottled Lemonade
Beyoncé’s Lemonade? Great. Pretty much every other kind of lemonade? Mostly garbage. On top of the boatload of sugar that’s in most lemonade recipes, brands like Minute Maid give their bottled and canned lemonade drinks a vibrant hue by using yellow #5, which has been linked to hyperactivity and impaired renal function in animal test subjects.
Eat This! Instead: Opt for some infused water instead and you’ll save yourself a huge number of calories, a ton of sugar, and keep those kidneys working—we hear they’re pretty important, after all.
4. American Cheese
That brick of orange cheese sitting in the dairy case at your supermarket is more than just a flavorless lump of dairy-ish ingredients —it’s loaded with icky additives, too. While many companies are thankfully opting for natural colors to give their cheese that trademark bad spray-tan hue, they’re still loading those icky slices with ingredients that can seriously harm your health. Kraft Singles are packed with sodium citrate, which can cause muscle spasms and may be unhealthy to individuals with kidney health issues. They’re also packed with sodium phosphate, an ingredient used to prevent crystallization of meat and dairy products, which has been linked to an increased risk of bone demineralization, osteoporosis, and kidney health issues.
Eat This! Instead: If you can’t fight your cheese cravings, opt for an organic cheese that’s made without preservatives or artificial colors. If you’re trying to be particularly gentle with your body, opt for an aged white cheddar or parmesan —they’re the cheeses with the lowest lactose levels, which make them the least likely to cause digestive distress to the estimated 75 percent of adults who can’t fully digest dairy.
5. Boxed Cake Mixes
Nothing says “Happy Birthday!” like a slice of sugary, chemical-laden cake, right? Whipping up a cake from a box is much easier than gathering all the ingredients and baking it from scratch. But taking this shortcut could cost you in the health department. Many cake mixes from Duncan Hines, Betty Crocker, and Jiffy are loaded with belly-bloating sugar, and questionable chemicals—that’s nothing to celebrate.
You already knew all the artery-clogging fats and addicting sugars in candy weren’t doing you or your family any favors, but you likely didn’t realize that certain candies can make it more difficult for your little ones to concentrate. A few years ago, researchers discovered that the artificial colors, Yellow No. 5 and Yellow No. 6 (found in M&Ms), promote Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) in children, according to a study in the journal The Lancet. In fact, Norway and Sweden have already banned the use of these artificial colors, and in the rest of the EU, foods containing these additives must be labeled with the phrase: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
7. Hot Dogs
There are plenty of good reasons not to eat hot dogs—their high levels of sodium and carcinogen-producing nitrates are just two—but if you need another, here you go. The BBQ staple is also preserved with sodium phosphates: an ingredient that even McDonald’s scrapped from their menu. Studies published in the journals FASEB and Aging have connected high levels of serum phosphates (due to dietary consumption) to higher rates of heart disease, chronic kidney disease, weak bones, and accelerated aging.
Eat This! Instead: If you’re jonesing for a juicy dog, opt for an organic option like Applegate Farms’ Great Organic Uncured Beef Hot Dog.
8. French Toast
If you make the right choices when eating French toast, it isn’t necessarily all that bad, but ordering this breakfast dish out at a restaurant changes everything, as it just adds more fat, sugar, and salt to a meal already high in fat, sugar, and salt as it is. Cheesecake Factory’s bruléed French toast has nearly 3,000 calories, which is more than a day’s worth of calories in your first meal of the day.
Eat This! Instead: To quell your sweet tooth craving at breakfast, make a smoothie alongside a breakfast sandwich with a side order of eggs. Or try your hand at your own French toast that has plenty of fruit, protein, and fiber.
9. Belgian Waffles
Belgian waffles tend to be bigger and thicker with deeper grids meant to hold even more syrup, butter, and cream, so that right there is reason enough to avoid choosing this as a breakfast option when you find yourself out to eat at a diner. Plus, they often get loaded with sugar and sweet batters, so they can go from bad to worse. They’re also loaded with simple carbs, which makes them too easy to digest and not very promising when it comes to keeping you full and focused.
Eat This! Instead: Go with a traditional waffle you can whip up at home and make sure to top with fruit and pure maple syrup.
10. Bacon & Sausage
Processed meats are the worst of both worlds. They’re typically made from red meats high in saturated fats, and they contain high levels of advanced glycation end products (AGEs): inflammatory compounds that are created when these processed meats are dried, smoked, and cooked at high temperatures. Not to mention, those nitrates and nitrites in cured and natural, “uncured” meats can turn into carcinogenic nitrosamines when exposed to high heat, according to Meat Science. (And you’re typically roasting your sausages on a flame-flickering grill and bacon in a frying pan, right?)
Eat This! Instead: Luckily, manufacturers have a limit on the amount of nitrites they use and are required to add antioxidants, such as vitamin C, which a review in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found helps to inhibit nitrosamine formation. While a study in Food Chemistry found processed foods have an average of 80 percent fewer nitrites than they once did, you can take extra precautions to limit your nitrosamine exposure by purchasing uncured meats that use no nitrites—only salt—and try turning down the heat.
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