Dodging harmful ingredients in processed foods like chips and candy is pretty easy, but when it comes to some ‘natural’ and even ‘organic’ items like non-dairy milk, protein bars, non-dairy yogurt, whole grain products, nut butters, condiments and even some cereals, the lines can get a little blurry. Many of these items are staples for all of us, and some of us might even eat them daily.

Though a whole foods, 100 percent plant-based diet is the best route for everyone, most of us don’t have time to make fresh almond milk and our own nut butter every single week. Those are certainly the optimal options, but some packaged foods can come in handy when we’re trying to make a healthy diet work for our busy schedules. It’s also to important to remember that not all processed foods are equal. A box of sugary cereal with artificial flavors and preservatives does not compare to some processed raw granola mixes or organic, non-GMO no added sugar cereal varieties. Both are processed, but will act completely different in your body, and create different effects towards your overall health and well-being.

So when it comes to choosing processed foods and learning which ones are better than others, we have to know what to look for so the lines don’t become too grey. Here are 5 ingredients that should not appear in the ingredient list of processed foods you buy. While they may not kill you with one bite, their ill effects have been studied well enough to show us that they’re best to avoid them however we can.

Read your labels, and if you spot these, put them back on the shelf pronto!

1. Casein or Caseinates


This is a code name for a milk protein linked to cancer, along with a hidden sources of MSG. It’s been shown to cause addictive behaviors, mood disorders, brain fog, and digestion problems. It can appear in many cereals, milk products, cereal bars, protein bars, protein powders and any other food that’s not 100 percent vegan. If the label says vegetarian, it’s best to turn the product over and read the ingredients. Casein (and whey) are considered vegetarian since they are animal byproducts.

2. Trans Fats/Rancid Oils



Trans fats can still appear in foods even if they are labeled “Trans Fat Free” because the FDA allows for up to .05 grams of a trans fat in a food to carry that health claim. Trans fats appear under the names of any oil that is hydrogenated, especially partially hydrogenated corn oil, peanut oil, soy oil, palm oil, etc. It’s normally best to avoid any processed foods with oil since during the processing of the products oils are highly heated. This completely changes their structure and makes them more detrimental to your body. Trans fats occur in many nut butters, protein bars and powders, margarine products, pre-made frostings, and buttery sprays that are advertised as being low calorie. Not all processed oils contain trans fats, but can contribute to some of the same health problems (increased cholesterol and weight gain) that trans fat oils do. Instead of foods made with highly heated oils, go with these healthy fats that improve your cholesterol as a better option.

3. GMOs



Genetically modified foods are an overall smart choice to avoid because ultimately, not enough research has been done over time for us to fully understand the long-term effects of GMOs and our health. All we are able to do now it draw upon research that has been done that show GMOs are overall smart to avoid because we’re not able to tell exactly how they’re produced, or what they may mean for our health before consuming them. When it comes to packaged foods, GMOs can be found in anything, so be cautious with your labels and spend your money smart! The best ways to avoid GMOs is to choose products that carry the Project Non-GMO seal or that are labeled GMO-free. Better yet, just purchase USDA certified organic products which ensures the product is free from GMOs, pesticides, herbicides and more.

4. MSG



MSG can appear in all kinds of things because it carries so many names. MSG has been linked to health issues such as headaches, brain fog, high blood pressure, and a general ill feeling. Food companies are not required to disclose if their product contains MSG or not. It is found in TVP, many protein bars, spice mixes, pre-made baking mixes, most foods high in processed forms of sodium, some protein powders, chicken and vegetable broth, soups, and many processed protein drinks. Products free from MSG will be labeled as such. For more information, see this complete list of foods that may contain MSG, and check out  5 Unexpected Places You May Find MSG (and how to Avoid it).

5. Added Sugars


Heather Kennedy/Flickr

Added sugars have been linked to heart disease and death, intense food cravings, blood sugar issues and they’re simply not necessary. Many food producers use them for a certain performance in food, and to help them sell better. For instance, added liquid sugars like agave may be added to energy bars to help them hold together better (which dates or figs can do just as well, by the way). Brown rice syrupcoconut sugar, evaporated cane juice or syrup, and artificial sweeteners are also used for these reasons that each pose their own problems with our health. Added sugars (and refined sugars) are also used in sweetened regular yogurt and sweetened non-dairy yogurts to help feed the good bacteria and make the products taste better.

Added sugars from natural sources may seem like a better option than refined cane sugar, but essentially, they all contain the same calorie content for the most part and are not a whole food. Agave nectar, for instance, is lower on the glycemic index than white sugar but contains more added fructose than high fructose corn syrup (another added source of sugar). Dr. Weil explains that too much fructose from sources like agave that are not a whole food can contribute to problems with our liver and quickly lead to obesity. All added sugars pose this threat and should not be consumed on a regular basis.

There are plenty of products out there you can choose that do not contain health risks like added sugars do. For instance, choose fruit and nuts instead of a processed bar. Sweeten your smoothies with pure alcohol-free liquid stevia (a 100 percent naturally sugar-free natural option) or fruit. Do the same with oatmeal and your baking recipes. Here are some other ways to curb your sweet tooth with natural foods for even more ideas.

Other Smart Choices to Avoid


The following ingredients may not cause problems for everyone, but have been linked to health problems that you should be aware of. Make the decision to read labels so that you are aware of these ingredients. If you suffer health issues after eating them such as digestive upset, headaches, allergic reactions, or generally feeling ill, do avoid them however possible:

  • Products fermented with wild yeast like bread, beer, kombucha, and baking or Brewer’s yeast (can trigger a yeast infection or trigger a histamine reaction in the body for sensitive individuals). These can be found in processed foods, vitamins, and other uncommonly known sources.
  • Emulsifiers that are listed as carrageenan, guar gum, xanthan gum, locust bean gum or cellulose (can cause digestive upset for many and even weight gain).
  • High amounts of salt more than 100-200 milligrams per serving (can contribute to increased blood pressure, food cravings, bloating and excessive thirst).
  • Processed corn (can contribute to inflammation and is often genetically modified). It appears in some vitamin C products or multivitamins under the name Abscorbic Acid, most processed foods not labeled organic, and most cheap supplements on the market to act as a filler.

And of course, we strongly urge you to avoid animal products found in any food, processed options included. They are not only linked to heart disease, cancer, and diabetes, but are also unnecessary and unsustainable compared to all the plant-based options we have available to us today. Animal ingredients on food labels can be labeled as: cheese, butter milk, whey, casein, pork or porcine, bovine, gelatin, fish oil, etc. See more hidden sources of animal products here.

Be sure to check out all our recipes to inspire you to eat more plant-based foods, and check out How to Make Clean Eating More Doable in 2015 to clean up your diet in some easy, no-fuss steps!

What do you look out for when you buy processed foods?

Lead Image Source: Mike Mozart/Flickr