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HIDDEN ADDITIVES:

Harmful additives are often hidden in the most unexpected foods and it can be almost impossible to avoid them unless you know exactly what to look for. This includes raw meat from the grocery store, bagged vegetables (eg. raw green beans), pre-cut fruit, baby carrots and many basic dairy products. In many cases additives and preservatives are not required to be listed as an ingredient.  If you know what to look for it is possible to avoid many hidden additives.

Fresh produce: buy only whole fruits and vegetables, and wash them well!

Who would have thought that we wouldn't even be able to trust fresh fruit and vegetables to be Before Natural? When you buy pre-cut fruit or vegetables at the grocery store they have often been soaked in a preservative solution that is not required to be listed as an ingredient. And if you've ever noticed that certain fruits keep well until they're washed, it's because of the preservatives they're coated in. Unfortunately the only way to know what you're getting when you buy produce is to wash it well and peel it yourself.

Frozen fruit and vegetables:

Many varieties of frozen fruit and vegetables have additives and hidden MSG (in the form of processed citric acid or other additives). Frozen peaches and bananas almost always do for example.  When purchasing frozen fruits and vegetables, make sure ingredients are listed and read them carefully.

Frozen fruit and veg
Canned fruit, vegetables, tuna, etc:

It can be remarkably hard to find canned products without any additives ("citric acid" is a common additive and a form hidden msg).  If you look carefully though, you should be able to find some Before Natural canned products. If you're also worried about BPA and other chemicals in can linings though, it might be best to avoid cans entirely. If you're OK with the lining, check the ingredients carefully or choose some of these canned fruit and vegetables and fish/seafood.

Bread:

This is one that surprises a lot of people and often causes confusion, especially since "gluten" and "glutamate" sound so similar. Gluten is naturally present in bread made with wheat flour. This affects people with gluten sensitivities. Gluten happens to contain a lot of the natural amino acid glutamate, bound into its protein structure. Because it's bound, it can't bind glutamate receptors to cause reactions in people who are sensitive to free glutamate. However, if the gluten is processed (eg. malted) it releases processed free glutamate which will cause reactions. On top of that, there are a lot of stabilizers, dough conditioners, bleach and other chemicals that end up in bread, which often contain hidden MSG. Finally, many breads contain significant quantities of added sugar. For more information about additives in bread, click here.

Eggs:

Some people react to Omega-3 eggs, presumably because of what they feed the chickens to increase the Omega-3 content of their eggs. Notably, while Omega-3 fatty acid supplementation is often recommended, there is a strong argument that reducing Omega-6 intake is a better way to reduce the Omega-6:Omega-3 ratio. 

Cheese and dairy:

Cheese is one of the hardest places to avoid high levels of processed free glutamate, and one of the hardest to figure out unless you know exactly what to look for. Any cheese that lists enzymes or vegetarian rennet most likely contains hidden MSG. Unlike animal rennet, which cleaves proteins at very specific sites, the enzymes and non-animal rennet break down milk proteins non-specifically, releasing high levels of free glutamate. Many cheese-makers are switching from rennet to enzymes (it's cheaper and vegetarian) so even if you've been fine with a certain cheese before, double check the ingredients each time to make sure they haven't changed. Click here for Before Natural cheeses and dairy products.

Fresh or frozen fish and seafood:

You'll have to look harder than you might think to find fish and seafood without additives such as sodium tripolyphosphate (sodium phosphate). Sodium tripolyphosphate is used as a cleaning product, but also used for water retention in food. Short-term it may cause stomach aches, but the potential long-term side effects are even more concerning. Phosphorus intake has long been correlated with adverse outcomes in people with kidney disease, but a 2013 US study of almost 10 000 healthy adults showed that excessive phosphorus intake was associated with higher all-cause mortality in that normal population as well. Nonetheless, 50% of the best-selling grocery products in the US contain phosphorus additives (especially frozen foods) and even foods that are basically unprocessed can contain phosphorus additives - frozen fish, shrimp and seafood in particular.

Fresh Meat
Fresh meat:

Almost any meat at the grocery store has been soaked in a preservative solution. Citric acid is one example that is legal in North America (not Europe) and does not need to be listed as an ingredient.  Meat also often has added MSG in ingredients like broth or natural flavor.  Raw meat is commonly sold without ingredient lists, and even if ingredients are listed some preservatives are often not included.

In addition to avoiding preservatives, better quality meat tastes better, and studies have shown that organic meat is actually more nutritious.  And if that's not enough reason to convince you, by buying from a local butcher or farm, you'll be supporting local businesses and reducing your carbon footprint at the same time. 

Stock or broth:

Store-bought stock and broth almost always contain hidden MSG and additives. And when stock or broth are listed as an ingredient in another product, it almost certainly contains hidden MSG and additives, even if it looks like all the ingredients are listed afterwards in brackets. The FDA does not require all sub-ingredients to be listed when brackets are used so there is no way of knowing what exactly is in those products.  You may be able to obtain frozen stock without additives locally - check out the Stock Exchange if you're in Southern Ontario. 

Juice
Juice:

Lately the trend seems to be to recommend avoiding juice as it's basically just sugar water. No doubt many people hear that and reach for diet pop or artificially-flavoured vitamin water instead.  And who's going to argue with that?  Any major beverage company would much rather you purchase their processed beverages that cost them almost nothing to produce, and contain additives and processed sugar that keep you coming back for more.

 

Pure juice does have nutritional value, especially compared to processed, sweetened and artificially flavored beverages. Having said that, many "juice" products are not actually pure juice, and they often contain added sugar and preservatives.  Even those that don't may contain hidden MSG or harmful byproducts depending on the processing.

"100% natural", "no sugar added" and "not from concentrate" juice

Don't be fooled by labels that say "100% natural" (which often means they contain "natural flavor") or "no sugar added" (which usually means artificial sweeteners are added).  Those are easy enough to avoid if you check the ingredients carefully. "Not from concentrate" is a lot more deceptive. In order to extend the shelf-life of "not from concentrate" juice, processing is required.  The flavor that is lost in that processing is then added back in afterwards as "flavor packs" (this is the technical term, seriously) which contain processed ingredients and/or chemicals but are not required to be listed in the ingredients because they are derived from the oil or essence of the fruit.

The best juice by far is the juice that you've freshly squeezed from fresh fruits and vegetables. When that's not an option though you're much better off drinking juice than "diet" drinks or other artificially flavored beverages, as long as you make sure that it's actually juice rather than a 100% natural, no sugar added, not from concentrate "juice" product.

Dried fruit and nuts:

It goes without saying that seasoned nuts almost always contain MSG, added sugar and other additives, but plain dried fruit and nuts may also contain additives.  In particular sulphites (or sulfites) are often added as a preservative to maintain "freshness" and color.  If your dried apricots are not brown, chances are they contain sulphites.  Sulphites can go by many names - potassium bisulphite, potassium metabisulphite, sodium bisulphite, sodium dithionite, sodium metabisulphite, sodium sulphite, sulphur dioxide and sulphurous acid.  Check the ingredients and look for "may contain sulfites" on the label. 

Flour:

Flour surprisingly rarely contains just grains. Vitamins and minerals are lost during processing so are often added back in afterwards, which is fine, but many harmful ingredients are also often added, including dough conditioners, bleach and other chemicals. Click here for more information and a list of Before Natural baking supplies.

Oil:

While most oils do not contain added sugar or MSG (aside from the flavored ones which usually do), many of the oils that are touted as the healthiest (such as canola oil) are highly refined and actually contain relatively high levels of artificial trans-fats, which have been shown to increase risk of heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.  Many of them have also been treated with the herbicide glyphosate (Roundup). See here for more information about canola oil in particular.  If you are looking for a minimally processed, before natural oil, the safest bets are extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil and butter.

Vinegar:

Certain types of vinegar almost always contain additives or processed msg (for example malt vinegar and red wine vinegar). Traditional Balsamic vinegar would not but it costs $100-300 per 100mL bottle and is not readily available - any other "Balsamic" vinegar does contain additives. There are vinegars that are usually free of added sugar, msg and preservatives (apple cider vinegar, white vinegar and rice vinegar) but even then there are exceptions.  Don't assume it's just vinegar unless that's the only ingredient, and even then be skeptical (wine vinegar for example comes from wine that almost certainly contained additives).

Table salt:

It's remarkably hard to find table salt that is just salt - most brands add sugar or other additives.  Check the ingredients and if ingredients aren't listed, don't assume it's just salt!  Additionally, recent studies have detected microplastics in 90% of sea salts. The safest salt is Himalayan pink salt, which comes from ancient unpolluted sea-beds.

Spices and herbs:

Spices and herbs are a great way to add flavor and nutritional value to food. However, harmful additives can negate these benefits and have extremely serious health consequences. A recent study exposed widespread adulteration of ground turmeric with lead chromate, which improves the bright yellow color of turmeric in less-than-ideal harvests. Lead is considered toxic at any dose and cases of lead toxicity have been linked to turmeric, even in the US. Similarly, ground paprika with added lead oxide caused the poisoning and hospitalization of >50 people in Hungary in 1994. Other plain spices such as ground cinnamon often also contain unexpected additives that may or may not be listed as ingredients. Most spice mixes have added sugar and/or hidden msg. Read the ingredients carefully and watch out for anything listed in brackets, meaning they don't have to list every ingredient. There are a few places that do offer some before "natural" spice mixes (The Silk Road has some great ones for example). The safest spices are fresh or whole spices. Otherwise be skeptical and cautious.

Baby products:

Unfortunately we can't trust baby food (even organic baby food) and other baby products to not contain hidden MSG, added sugar or other additives. MSG is often hidden in the form of cheese or yogurt (which almost never have sub-ingredients listed) or citric acid (which sounds innocent but is produced by processing proteins and as a result is a source of hidden MSG). See here for more information.

Medication and vitamins:

Check the ingredients carefully, especially on liquid preparations and flavored tablets. 

Wine, beer and other alcohol:

Alcoholic beverages are regulated by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) as opposed to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) which means they are not required to list ingredients (although they do need to declare certain ingredients such as sulfites, FD&C Yellow No. 5 and aspartame).  

 

While we often think of wine as a pure product that is just aged from pressed grapes, it unfortunately almost always contains processed free glutamate, added sugar or other additives (see this article for more information). White wine and organic wine tend to be safer, but there are no guarantees unless the ingredients are listed. Likewise for beer (see here), cider and other alcohol beverages.  Unless the producer chooses to list ingredients, we unfortunately have no way of knowing what has been added. See here for some of the few alcoholic beverage options without additives.

What about organic? Non-GMO?

Organic processed food is just as likely to contain free glutamate and added sugar as any other food, so from this perspective, organic food is not necessarily any better than conventional food. And theoretically, genetic modification can be used to promote crops that are more disease or pest resistant (reducing the amount of pesticides that would be used for example) or more drought-tolerant, without necessarily altering nutritional value. However, overall there are significant benefits to eating whole foods that are organic or at least non-GMO.

Organic farming avoids chemical fertilizer, chemical herbicides, synthetic pesticides, growth hormones and antibiotics.  It is better for the environment, gives livestock access to the outdoors, and typically produces food that is significantly more nutritious (not to mention tastier) than conventional farming.  In particular, the recent evidence that Round-Up is carcinogenic and environmentally damaging makes the widespread use of Round-Up on non-organic crops (especially grain and legume crops to facilitate a faster and easier harvest, and on crops like corn that have been genetically modified to be resistant to it) very worrisome from both a health and environmental perspective.  Eating organic (which automatically also means non-GMO) can be more expensive but almost certainly healthier and more environmentally friendly. 

 

Choosing to avoid MSG, processed foods, and added sugar will result in noticeable health benefits. Similarly, choosing organic can have important (albeit potentially more subtle) health and environmental benefits.

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