Food Ingredients To Avoid

Written by Dr. Steve Chaney on . Posted in current health articles, Food and Health, Nutritiion

Food Ingredients to Avoid-Part 1: The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


I have been getting a lot of questions lately about food ingredient labels. That’s because in today’s internet world everyone is an “expert” wanting to be heard. Couple that with the fact that old news is boring, and we have a problem. All of these experts have to keep coming up with information that is novel and scary. It doesn’t need to be true – just novel and scary.

food ingredients to avoidThe warnings about which food ingredients to avoid are a perfect example. A few years ago it was pretty simple to know which ingredients to avoid. If you avoided foods with sugar, refined flour, trans fats and all that artificial stuff, you were OK. However, in recent years the list of additives to avoid keeps getting longer and longer.

It has reached the point where it is getting really hard to find a food or food supplement that doesn’t have any of the ingredients on the “naughty list”. You may even be wondering if there is anything besides organic fresh fruits and vegetables that you actually can eat. How did we get to this point?

The answer is obvious. All the internet “experts” needed something new to warn us about so they took molehills and turned them into mountains. They took food ingredients that might cause a few problems for a limited number of people and characterized them as ingredients that were dangerous for everyone. Their posts were picked up and repeated by other “experts” and pretty soon everyone thought they had to be true. The warnings about food ingredients became what I call “urban nutrition myths”.

It is time for a myth buster to come along and help you sort through all of the ingredient warnings so that you know which ones are true and which are myths. That’s something I enjoy doing. Let me be your guide.

Which Food Ingredients Should You Avoid?

My “research” for this article began by Googling “Food Ingredients to Avoid” to see what was on the internet. Starting from the top of the list that came up on Google, here are the articles I found:

Men’s Fitness: “The 9 Scariest Food Additives You Are Eating Right Now “ (

Waking Times: “20 Ingredients to Memorize and Avoid In Any Food You Consume (

Women’s Health: “7 Ingredients Nutritionists Always Avoid” (

Reader’s Digest: “4 Most Harmful Ingredients In Packaged Foods” (

Huffington Post: “10 Of The Worst Toxic Food Ingredients” (

WebMD did not even weigh in on the issue of food ingredient warnings. Reader’s Digest and the Huffington Post included mostly the ingredient warnings that we have been hearing about for years. The other three articles included some of the newcomers to the ingredient warning list. By combining all 5 of those articles, I came up with 25 of the most frequently mentioned “dangerous” food ingredients to avoid and have divided them into 3 categories. I call them “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly”.

This week I will help you identify the “good ones” – those food ingredients that are on many of the internet “naughty lists”, but are actually OK for most people most of the time. Next week, I’ll be back with the bad and the ugly lists.

Food Ingredients: The Good

good food ingredientsI would be the first to admit the using the word “good” as a descriptor for food ingredients is a bit of a misnomer. The word “good” should really be reserved for organic fresh fruits and vegetables along with other whole, unprocessed foods. Of course, the problem is that most of us don’t eat enough of those foods, so we need to know which ingredients in the processed foods and food supplements we eat are OK.

The list of food ingredients that are perfectly OK for most of us would be a long one, so let me just mention a few that have inadvertently slipped onto the online “naughty lists” that you may have seen.

GMO: Let me be perfectly clear. I am no fan of GMO foods, but ingredients derived from GMO foods are a very different story. I have covered this topic in detail in my previous articles “Should GMO Labeling Be Required For All Food Ingredients?” ( & “Will Non-GMO Foods Be Less Nutritious?” ( and my webinar “The Truth About Genetically Modified Foods” (, so let me just summarize the key points here.

  • GMO foods and proteins derived from GMO foods can be a problem because of food sensitivities to the modified proteins. That risk is real, but is difficult to quantify.
  • All other food ingredients derived from genetically modified foods contain no genetic information or proteins. They are chemically & biologically indistinguishable from the same ingredients derived from non-GMO foods. Consequently, there are no health risks associated with these food ingredients.
  • I am aware of the recent internet chatter about the WHO declaring that Roundup can cause cancer. What is missed in these discussions is that Roundup is also approved for use just prior to harvest for non-GMO foods such as wheat and beans. That means that some non-GMO foods are more likely to be contaminated with Roundup residues than are GMO foods.
  • That just leaves the environmental issue. Roundup does break down relatively quickly in the environment, but I do have concerns about spraying tons of the stuff on our crops every year. However, I must acknowledge that many of my scientific colleagues do not share this concern, and they are not all in bed with Monstanto.

Soy: This is another topic I have covered extensively in my previous articles such as “Soy and Breast Cancer Recurrence” ( & “Soy and Breast Cancer” ( and my video “The Truth About Soy” ( Once again, I will just give a brief summary.

  • The myths that soy consumption causes breast cancer or any other cancer, lowers testosterone levels in men and interferes with thyroid metabolism have been disproven by multiple clinical studies.
  • The idea that soy has to be fermented to be healthy is also a myth. Most soy products are processed in such a manner that the toxins in the soy bean are removed.
  • For ingredients made from soy such as soy lecithin, there are no health risks associated with sourcing them from GMO soy (see above). If you are consuming a soy protein product, however, I do recommend that you choose non-GMO soy.

CarrageenanCarrageenan: Carrageenan comes from seaweed and red algae. It has been used in foods for thousands of years because of its gelling properties. In the supplement world it is used to improve consistency and the disintegration of tablets.

There is a lot to like about carrageenan. It is natural, organic and non-GMO. Why then has it become an internet villain in the food ingredient world? The problem is that most of the internet “experts” who are vilifying carrageenan are not distinguishing between carrageenan and its breakdown product poligeenan. Here are the facts:

  • In some animal studies poligeenan at very high doses has been shown to cause diarrhea, hemorrhaging & ulcerations of the colon and even colon cancer. Not all animal studies agree, but this does raise the possibility that high doses of poligeenan might cause the same effects in humans.
  • Food grade carrageenan contains <5% poligeenan and does not raise the same concerns.
  • Food grade carrageenan does not cause gastrointestinal problems in most animal studies. Nor has it been shown to cause cancer in any animal study.
  • The FDA, USDA and WHO have reviewed all available studies and have concluded that food grade carrageenan is safe.
  • The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has concluded that carrageenan does not cause cancer.

Caramel Color: I won’t go into detail here, but the argument is similar to carrageenan. It is a minor impurity of caramel coloring that is the concern. However, caramel coloring itself should not be a concern for products made by any reputable manufacturer that employs rigorous quality control tests on their ingredients.

Canola Oil: Canola oil is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fats, especially the beneficial omega-3 polyunsaturated fats. In supplements it is primarily used as a source of healthy fats and to improve taste, aroma or texture. There are some legitimate concerns with canola oil, but they have been considerably overhyped. This is a perfect example of a molehill being turned into a mountain. Let’s look at the myths that are simply untrue and the facts that have been overhyped.

  • Myth #1: Canola oil contains the same toxins as the original rapeseed oil. Fact: The toxins found in rapeseed oil has been removed through conventional plant breeding. Canola oil is toxin free.
  • Myth #2: Canola oil is toxic in animal studies. Fact: When you look at those studies carefully they were either done with rapeseed oil or were done under conditions where almost any vegetable oil would have been problematic.
  • Fact #1: Canola oil is highly processed. That’s true, but so are most other vegetable oils. If you want a less processed oil, choose virgin olive oil. (Unfortunately, it is not found in many processed foods or food supplements – probably because of cost). Some experts recommend palm oil or coconut oil, but they have their own problems because of their high saturated fat content.
  • Fact #2: Most canola oil comes from GMO plants. That is true, but canola oil is a highly purified food ingredient. As described above, that means there are no health concerns from eating GMO canola oil, only a possible environmental concern.

Maltodextrin: Maltodextrin is a natural food ingredient made from enzymatically digesting starch. It is used as a stabilizer and thickener in foods. It is also combined with glucose and fructose in sports drinks to provide sustained energy.

  • Myth #1: The internet is filled with claims that maltodextrin causes gastrointestinal problems or that it is unsafe. There is very little evidence to back that up, and we need to consider those claims in light of the fact that we produce lots of maltodextrin in our intestines every day as we digest the starches in our diet.
  • Myth #2: “Maltodextrin is just another sugar. It is just another way for food manufacturers to hide the total amount of sugar in their products.” Maltodextrin is actually less sweet than most sugars. As described above, it is primarily added to foods for reasons other than to impart sweetness.
  • Fact: Most of the maltodextrin in the US does come from GMO corn. Once again, it is a highly purified food ingredient. As with canola oil that means there are no health concerns, only possible environmental concerns.

Just because these ingredients are on my “good list” doesn’t mean that they won’t cause problems for some people. Lots of people have food allergies. My dad, for example, was allergic to chocolate, which has to be one of the cruelest food allergies that someone could have. Sometimes food allergies can be quite severe. Just ask someone with severe peanut allergies what life can be like if they even come near a peanut.

My point is that any natural food or food ingredient can cause allergic reactions in some people. That doesn’t make them bad. It is just part of normal living.

Next week I will be back with “the bad and the ugly” food ingredients. Stay tuned.


The Bottom Line

If you were to believe everything you read on the internet about food ingredients that you should avoid, you could end up spending most of your day reading food labels and still find very few foods that you could eat. Some of those warnings are true, some are partially true, and some are mostly myths.

To help you sort through this confusing information I have identified the top 25 food ingredient warnings and have divided them into the good, the bad and the ugly. This week I covered the “good ones”.

The “good” are those food ingredients that are perfectly OK for most people, most of the time. Here are some examples (see the article above for a full explanation).

  • Soy: The supposed dangers of soy have been disproven by numerous clinical studies, but the myths persist. I do recommend that you choose non-GMO soy protein.
  • GMO: GMO foods and proteins are a concern, but purified food ingredients obtained from GMO foods pose no health risks. There are, however, possible environmental concerns due to the overuse of Roundup when those GMO foods were grown.
  • Carrageenan and Caramel Color: In this case it is contaminants rather than the food ingredients themselves that are the problem. As long as you choose a manufacturer who performs rigorous quality control tests on their ingredients, you need not be concerned about these ingredients.
  • Canola Oil, Maltodextrin and Soy lecithin: The supposed dangers of these food ingredients are myths. They are not backed up by credible clinical studies. However, they are generally derived from GMO foods, so there is a possible environmental concern.
  • Just because these food ingredients made my good list doesn’t mean they are OK for everyone. People can be allergic to certain food ingredients, just as they can be allergic to certain foods so for some, these can still be food ingredients to avoid.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.

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Latest Article

Should You Avoid Sugar Completely?

Posted October 24, 2017 by Dr. Steve Chaney

Is It The Sugar, Or Is It The Food?

Author: Dr. Stephen Chaney


Should we avoid sugar completely?  Almost every expert agrees that Americans should cut down on the amount of sugar we are consuming. However, for some people this has become a “sugar phobia”. They have sworn that “sugar shall never touch their lips”. Not only do they avoid sugar sweetened sodas and junk food, but they also have become avid label readers. They scour the label of every food they see and reject foods they find any form of sugar listed as an ingredient. Is this degree of sugar avoidance justified?


Should We Avoid Sugar to Keep it From Killing Us?


Let me add some perspective:

  • If you just take studies about the dangers of sugar at face value, sugar does, indeed, look dangerous. Excess sugar consumption is associated with increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. However, when you look a little closer, you find that most of these studies have been done by looking at the correlation of each of these conditions with sugar sweetened beverage consumption (sodas and fruit juices).

A few studies have looked at the correlation of obesity and disease with total “added sugar” consumption. However, 71.6% of added sugar in the American diet comes from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food. None of the studies have looked at the sugar from healthy foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. That’s because there is ample evidence that these foods decrease the risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

  • For example, if apples had a nutrition label, it would list 16 grams of sugar in a medium 80 calorie apple, which corresponds to about 80% of the calories in that apple. The sugar in an apple is about the same proportion of fructose and glucose found in high fructose corn syrup. Apples are not unique. The nutrition label would read about the same on most other fruits. Does that mean you should avoid sugar from all fruits? I think not.

Avoid Sugar or Avoid Certain Foods


avoid sugar from junk foodsThe obvious question is: “Why are the same sugars, in about the same amounts, unhealthy in sodas and healthy in fruits?” Let’s go back to those studies I just mentioned—the ones that are often used to vilify sugars. They are all association studies, the association of sugar intake with obesity and various diseases.

The weakness of association studies is the association could be with something else that is tightly correlated with the variable (sugar intake) that you are measuring. Could it be the food that is the problem, not the sugar?

If we look at healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, whole grains) they are chock full of vitamins, minerals, phytonutrients, fiber, and (sometimes) protein. Fiber and protein slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream. As a result, blood sugar levels rise slowly and are sustained at relatively low levels for a substantial period of time.

In sodas there is nothing to slow the absorption of blood sugar. You get rapid rise in blood sugar followed by an equally rapid fall. The same is true of junk foods consisting primarily of sugar, refined flour and/or fat.  Avoid sugar from those types of foods.

Another consideration is something called caloric density. Here is a simple analogy. I used to explain the concept of caloric density to medical students in my teaching days. There are about the same number of calories in a 2-ounce candy bar and a pound of apples (around 278 in the 2-ounce candy bar and 237 in a pound of apples). You can eat a 2-ounce candy bar and still be hungry. If you eat a pound of apples you are done for a while. In this example, the 2-ounce candy bar had a high caloric density (a lot of calories in a small package). Perhaps a more familiar terminology would be the candy bar was just empty calories.

Are Sodas and Junk Foods Killing Us?

avoid sugar from candyPutting all that together, you can start to understand why the foods the sugars are in are more important than the sugars themselves. When you consume sugars in the form of sugar sweetened beverages or sugary junk foods, your appetite increases. We don’t know for sure whether it is the intense sweetness of those foods, the rapid increase and fall in blood sugar, or the high caloric density (lots of calories ina small package) that makes us hungrier. It doesn’t matter. We crave more food, and it isn’t usually fruits, vegetables, and complex carbohydrates we crave. It’s more junk. That sets in motion a predictable sequence of events.

  • We overeat. Those excess calories are stored as fat and we become obese. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you our fat stores come from carbohydrates alone. That is incorrect. All excess calories, whether from protein, fat, or carbohydrate, are stored as fat.]
  • It’s not just the fat you can see (belly fat) that is the problem. Some of that fat builds up in our liver and muscles. This sets up an unfortunate sequence of metabolic events.
  • The fat stores release inflammatory cytokines into our bloodstream. That causes inflammation. Inflammation increases the risk of many diseases including heart disease and cancer.
  • The fat stores also cause our cells to become resistant to insulin. That reduces the ability of our cells to take up glucose, which leads to hyperglycemia and type 2 diabetes. [Note: The low carb enthusiasts will tell you carbohydrates cause type 2 diabetes. That is also incorrect. It is our fat stores that cause insulin resistance and type 2 diabetes. Our fat stores come from all excess calories, not just excess calories from carbohydrates.]
  • Insulin resistance also causes the liver to overproduce cholesterol and triglycerides and pump them into the bloodstream. That increases the risk of heart disease.
  • Sugar sweetened beverages and sugary junk foods also displace healthier foods from our diet. That leads to potential nutrient shortfalls that can increase our risk of many diseases.

However, none of this has to happen. The one thing that every successful diet has in common is the elimination of sodas, junk foods, fast foods and convenience foods. You should avoid sugar from those foods as much as possible. Once you eliminate those from your diet,you significantly enhance your chances of being at a healthy weight and being healthy long term.


What About Protein Supplements And Similar Foods?

Of course, the dilemma is what you, as an intrepid label reader, should do about protein supplements, meal replacement bars, or snack bars. They are supposed to be healthy, but the label lists one or more sugars. Even worse, the sugar content is higher than your favorite health guru recommends.  So, should you avoid sugar from supplements and the like?

In this case, a more useful concept is glycemic index, which is a measure of the effect of the food on your blood sugar levels. Healthy foods like apples may have a high sugar content, but they havea low glycemic index.

avoid sugar and consume protein to slow absorbptionThe same is true for the protein supplements and bars you are considering. Rather than looking at the sugar content, you should be looking for the term “low glycemic” on the label. That means there is enough fiber and protein in the food to slow the absorption of sugar into the bloodstream and stabilize your blood sugar levels.

What Does This Mean For You?

Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should work on ways to avoid sugar or reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners. I have warned about the dangers of artificial sweeteners previously.

We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. For example, some Starbucks drinks are mostly sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

So we don’t have to avoid sugar completely, but we should reduce sugar from sugar sweetened beverages and junk food.


The Bottom Line


We need to keep warnings about the dangers of sugar in perspective:

  • The studies showing that sugar consumption leads to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease have all been done with sodas and junk foods.
  • Many fruits have just as much sugar as a soda. They also contain about the same proportion of fructose and glucose as high fructose corn syrup. Yet we know fruits are good for us.
  • Diets rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains decrease our risk of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.
  • That is because the sugar in whole foods is generally present along with fiber and protein, which slows the absorption of sugar and prevents the blood sugar spikes we get with sodas and junk foods.
  • In the case of prepared foods like protein supplements, you should look for “low glycemic” on the label rather than sugar content. Low glycemic means that there is enough fiber and protein in the product to slow the absorption of sugar and prevent blood sugar spikes.
  • Don’t misunderstand me. I am not advocating for unlimited consumption of sugar. We should all work on ways to avoid sugar from junk foods or to reduce the amount of sugar in our diet. On the other hand, we don’t need to become so strict that we and our family need to eat foods that taste like cardboard. We also don’t want to replace natural sugars with artificial sweeteners.
  • We can go a long way towards reducing sugar by just eliminating sodas, other sugar sweetened beverages, junk foods, fast foods, convenience foods, and pastries from our diet. When considering fast foods and convenience foods, we should check the label for hidden sugar. When considering foods that are supposed to be healthy, we should look for the term “low glycemic” on the label.

For more details, read the article above.


These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This information is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease.