The fronts of food boxes and products are designed to grab your attention. The bright colors and claims of “low fat,” “all natural,” and more. But what really matters is the back of the item, where you’ll find the ingredients and the nutrition label. Do you read the entire food label?

Consumer-advocacy group Citizens for Health has declared that April 11, 2014 is Read Your Labels Day, which encourages people to discover what’s in the foods and beverages they buy.

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“The majority of us don’t check the list of ingredients on food package labels,” Jim Turner, who chairs Citizens for Health, said on the Food Identity Theft website. “The big food manufacturers are counting on this. If we don’t read or understand the ingredients in their products, they can put pretty much whatever they want to into our food.”

Many people do at least look at the nutrition labels, but they often only scan the packages for such items as saturated fat or sodium content. An independent study in 2011 by the food and beverage research group Mintel found that less than half of consumers read the ingredients labels on foods they purchase.

Last April, the group sponsored the first Read Your Labels Day to raise awareness about how many chemicals are used in processed foods and beverages. The event was successful, with news coverage by major publications and even Whole Foods Markets hosted live events in their stores.

Top 10 Food Additives to Avoid

Beyond reading the labels on products, if you want to choose the best items for your health, you also need to know harmful ingredients to avoid. Here are the ones Citizens for Health calls the most unnecessary and health-damaging:

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  1. High fructose corn syrup. HFCS has been implicated in a variety of diseases and health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and weight gain. But it’s still found in sodas and other beverages, jellies, cookies, pastries, and even some diet foods.

  1. Aspartame. Aspartame is not a safe food additive and is considered to be an “excitotoxin,” which can excite brain cells to death. Studies have connected it to brain tumors and seizures in monkeys, and thousands of health complaints have been linked to aspartame, from migraines to memory loss and dizziness.

  1. Hydrolyzed protein. This ingredient can be allergenic, depending on the type of protein.

  2. Autolyzed yeast. Some say this is just as bad as MSG. In other words, you might want to research this more before consuming it!

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  3. Monosodium glutamate. Hydrolyzed protein, autolyzed yeast, and monosodium glutamate (MSG) are all harmful “excitotoxins.” They are put into foods to fool the tongue into thinking the food tastes better, but are linked to reactions from skin rashes to asthma attacks, mood swings, and more. Look out for anything that’s “hydrolyzed” and any ingredient that contains the word “protein” (whey protein isolate, textured protein.) Here’s a full list of ingredients that contain MSG.

  1. Potassium bromate. This ingredient has been known for decades to cause cancer in laboratory animals. It’s also banned in Europe, China, Canada, and Brazil. But you’ll still find it in breads and bakery products, possibly listed as bromated flour.

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  1. Brominated vegetable oil or BVO. BVO builds up fatty tissue and has been shown to cause heart damage in animals. It’s banned in Europe, India, and Japan. But can still be found in some Gatorade products, Mountain Dew, and other drinks containing citrus flavorings.

  1. BHA and BHT. BHA and BHT are made from coal tar or petroleum. It is considered a possible carcinogen by the Word Health Organization. But it is still found in many breakfast cereals (including most Kellogg’s varieties), as well as snack foods, chewing gum, pies, cakes, and processed meats.

  1. Trans fat. Trans fats increase bad cholesterol and decrease good cholesterol and has been linked with certain cancers. High trans fats also cause heart disease. Food products containing partially hydrogenated oil contain trans fats — even if a zero trans fats listing is found on the label. These include bakery items pizza, dough, pies, cakes and cookies, snack foods, and frozen meals.

  1. Artificial colors. Artificial colors cause hyperactivity and behavioral problems in some children, and some have been shown to cause cancer in laboratory animals. They’re found in many cereals, cakes, candy, bakery products, drinks, vitamins, and pharmaceuticals.

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The best way to avoid these ingredients is to buy organic processed foods or best of all to cook your own foods from scratch as much as possible. But always read your food labels and encourage others to do the same.

Further Reading

Image source: Skoot13 / Wikimedia Commons