4 hidden ingredients to watch for in prepared foods
With the launch of a new school year, busy home schedules can get even more hectic. With work, soccer and football practices, band rehearsals and PTA meetings, you may find yourself reaching for more packaged and prepared foods for lunches and family dinners. But do you know the hidden ingredients in these conveniences you may not be looking out for, especially in foods that may be marketed as healthy?
“Being able to grab and go with prepared meals, like frozen lunches and packaged snacks can be very easy,” says Kayla Hansmann, dietitian at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago. “Convenience is great, but what’s the long-term cost to your family’s health? A few extra minutes spent preparing fresh foods now can be less costly that the risks to your family’s future health.”
Hansmann says it’s especially easy to overlook possibly harmful ingredients in prepared foods, if you’re not reading the nutrition labels fully. She says there are four hidden ingredients you should look out for:
- Partially hydrogenated oils—These oils may also be labeled as trans fats on the nutrition label, but the amount listed may be tricky, Hansmann says. She says any amount of trans fat less than 0.5 g can be reported as 0, so pay close attention to the reported serving size. For instance, a serving of chips may be reported as 0 trans fats, but may actually contain 0.5 g. So, if you eat three servings in a sitting, you’re actually getting 1.5 g of trans fat. She suggested looking at the ingredient list and avoiding any hidden trans fats listed as “partially hydrogenated oils.”
- MSG and sodium—Hansmann says that, as a nation, we consume an overabundance of sodium, as evidenced by more and more children being diagnosed with high blood pressure. Packaged foods often contain a great deal of sodium, as not only reported on the nutrition label, but in the ingredients list as MSG. Ethnic dishes can be particular sources of MSG, which is often used as a flavor enhancer. Other foods that may contain hidden sodium are lunch meats, cheeses, frozen pizzas and even fresh baked breads.
- Sodium nitrates/nitrites—This hidden ingredient is often included as a food preservative, helping extend the life of a packaged food item. However, Hansmann says there is growing evidence that this preservative is linked to certain types of cancer.
- High fructose corn syrup—This ingredient, Hansmann says, is simply a fancy name for sugar and may be contributing to the growing diabetes epidemic in the U.S. She says to watch ingredient labels for anything ending in “-ose,” which are different forms of sugar. Look closely—there can often be three to four such ingredients in one food item.
In addition, she says to watch out for the sheer number of ingredients. For instance, a prepackaged cookie may contain as many as 50 listed ingredients, listed on the label in descending quantity, from most abundant to least. But fresh-baked cookies contain only the flour, eggs, butter and other natural ingredients you may put into them. Especially important are whole or natural foods, such as fruits and vegetables, that are naturally packaged and don’t require preparation time.
“Many chronic diseases are preventable with a proper diet,” Hansmann says. “You just need to build in a little extra preparation time and make certain your family is getting a properly balanced diet. Making meal preparation fun by including family members can make it seem less of a chore and teach good nutrition, at the same time.”
About the Author
health enews staff is a group of experienced writers from our Advocate Aurora Health sites, which also includes freelance or intern writers.