“If you can’t eat it, don’t pronounce it” is a simple phrase first made popular on the internet by best-selling author Micheal Pollan who wrote “In Defense of Food”, “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”, and “Food Rules” just to name a few. While generally I feel that eating anything that doesn’t sound like food is a prudent idea, perhaps Pollan’s recommendation is a little too simplistic. After all, just because you might stumble to pronounce dihydrogen monoxide (depending on your level of scientific knowledge), doesn’t mean you should never consume water. It might not be the food that’s the problem; it could be your level of nutritional or scientific literacy.

How many times have you picked up a pack of fortified almond milk to see words like d-alpha-tocopherol listed in the ingredients? What devilry is this?! What about your favourite protein bar packed with steviosides? That sounds deadly! Why do they list the theobromine content of your favourite gourmet chocolate bar? Is the government forcing them to warn you about deadly bromine molecules in that sweet cocoa goodness? Luckily, d-alpha-tocopherol is the chemical name for an isomer of vitamin E, stevioside is a component of the stevia plant that is used as a natural sweetener, and theobromine is a natural, health promoting molecule found naturally in dark chocolate. No need to worry! 

162 servings by John Loo licensed under CC BY 2.0

Just for fun, let’s look at some other safe ones that sound scary:

  • Thiamine mononitrate (vitamin B1)
  • Ascorbyl Palmitate (fat-soluble vitamin C)
  • Xylitol (naturally occurring 5 carbon fermented sugar alcohol)
  • Astaxanthin (a natural colouring agent and potent anti-oxidant similar to beta carotene from carrots)
  • Cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12)
The point? Just because something has a weird name does not mean it is harmful; in fact it is often just the opposite. But rather that just list off a pile of examples of safe ingredients, why don’t we spend a few minutes focusing on the stuff that is actually worth your attention to avoid:

#1 High Fructose Corn Syrup

It’s just concentrated liquid sugar; quite possibly the healthy scourge of the 21st century developed world. It contributes to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, obesity, and just about every other type of health epidemic we face in North America. High Fructose Corn Syrup is everywhere (in packaged food) so keep your eyes peeled and avoid whenever possible!

#2 Artificial Sweetners

This is a pretty big category, but my personal “worst offenders” list is Asparatame (also goes by the name of Equal and Nutrasweet), Saccharin and Sodium Cyclamate. Aspartame in particular has a rather shady history of repeated failures for approval by the FDA along with deep political entrenchment. Other artificial sweeteners also have an “on and off again banning” scenario which is enough to raise red flags for this writer. If you need something sweet and refuse to eat fruit as a healthy choice (wink wink), you’re better of using a natural sugar-alcohol such as xylitol, or a natural sweeteners such as stevia.

#3 Trans Fat

While small amounts of trans fat are present in nature, most trans fat we consume are from the hydrogenation of unsaturated fats which cause their structure to “transinate”. An abundance of research show that trans fats decrease your good HDL cholesterol, increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and contributes to inflammatory diseases (of which there are many). Fried foods, SOME margarines, and fast food in general are the biggest offenders here.

#4 Artificial Food Colouring

Many food colours also have a storied history and specific ones are banned in many countries; particularly throughout Europe. Studies have linked a variety of artificial food colours to cancers of various kinds. You don’t need your cereal to look like the colours of the rainbow. It’s okay if your sports drink isn’t fluorescent neon-green. It’s okay that your multivitamin isn’t two-tone yellow and blue. If you NEED food colouring, plenty of natural and safe food dyes are available such as annatto, betanin, lycopene, and chlorophyllin. More often than not, these natural food dyes actually have side-benefits instead of side-effects.

#5 BHT and BHA

These two infamous food preservatives make scientific groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest a little nervous as a result of studies showing an increase in cancer and inflammatory diseases in children, and hormonal disruption. Real food doesn’t need artificial preservatives right? Right.

Runners Up:

This could be an exhausting list, but I wanted to get two big ones off my chest. MSG, or monosodium glutamate appears to cause problems in some individuals mostly because they metabolize glutamine (a naturally-occurring amino acid) differently than the rest of us. Many anecdotal reports of a myriad of symptoms appearing after MSG consumption have been cited in the literature, but it seems that an overwhelming majority of scientific evidence does not support negative health effects of MSG with the exception of certain individuals. It should be noted that these same individuals often have problems using supplemental l-glutamine; a product normally touted as “healthy” at health food stores throughout the world.

Sulfites also exist in this runner-up category as well. Sulfites naturally occur in foods AND in the human body. Sulfites exist in a variety of sulfur-containing forms and naturally occur in fermented foods such as wine (although sometimes more sulfites are added to prevent the wine from turning into vinegar). Sulfites are not inherently any more harmful than ragweed pollen or peanuts, but rather are a common food allergen for those people whose immune systems incorrectly react to harmless sulfite compounds. Sulfites are not bad (at all really) unless you have an allergy to them.

Once again, I shall fall back to my basic words of wisdom. If you are eating whole foods as you find them in nature (or as close as possible), these issues likely won’t be of concern. Once you start opening packages to get access to your food however, you should exercise a little more caution. When in doubt, read those labels and double check with us if you’re unsure. Thanks for reading!