Green 101: What's In Your Processed Food?

Green Matters breaks down what often goes into the convenient, processed food commonly found in supermarkets.


May 13 2019, Updated 5:37 p.m. ET

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There’s food — and then there’s processed food. What’s the difference? Well, chances are good that if the stuff you bring home from the supermarket is in a box or some other fancy-pants packaging, it’s probably processed.

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Cereal. Cookies. Chips. Granola bars, pretzels, Hi-Hos, Ho-Hos, Ring-Dings, and Ding-Dongs. All of it.

The idea of processing food itself isn’t bad: making cookies, popping popcorn, brewing coffee. The problem happens when companies mass-produce our food, and in the process add all kinds of stuff to it to make it packageable, long-lasting, and transportable... and (of course!) to encourage us to buy more of it by loading it with thinly veiled versions of sugar and fat.

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So what do you do? Buy organic? Not organic? GMO-free? Not GMO-free? Abstain entirely? Short answer: if you can’t pronounce or understand an ingredient, don’t buy it. Not convinced? Read on.

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There is weed killer in virtually all processed food.

The Guardian reported last month that government scientists found glyphosate, a carcinogenic weed killer that’s used in Monsanto’s RoundUp, in a variety of commonly processed foods like honey, oatmeal products, granola, and crackers. While the FDA tested these commonly processed foods for glyphosate (an active ingredient in many herbicides, not just RoundUp) for the past two years, they didn’t released any official results. 

Then, the Guardian obtained data through a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and learned the FDA “has had trouble finding any food that does not carry traces of the pesticide.”

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“I have brought wheat crackers, granola cereal and corn meal from home and there’s a fair amount in all of them,” FDA chemist  Richard Thompson said in emails uncovered in the FOIA request. 

“People care about what contaminants are in their food,” Tracey Woodruff, a professor at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine, told the Guardian. “If there is scientific information about these residues in the food, the FDA should release it.” She added, “It helps people make informed decisions. Taxpayers paid for the government to do this work, they should get to see the information.”

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Here are the five chemicals most commonly found in processed food.

Here's what those hard-to-pronounce ingredients on processed food packaging really mean.

Glyphosate: This is a common weed killer produced by Monsanto. It’s one of the most widely used pesticides globally, and therefore most present in the food chain on those ingredients that have high uses of pesticides, like wheat and other grains. Excessive ingestion can lead to kidney and liver damage, and may have carcinogenic effects. Glyphosate is banned by organic farmers, but be careful: most commercial, organic farmers use some form of pesticides, and none of them are good for you.

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It’s all explained in this 2011 Scientific American article: “Organic pesticides are those that are derived from natural sources and processed lightly if at all before use.” You read that right — there are pesticides in processed, organic food too. 

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Partially hydrogenated oils: These include partially hydrogenated cottonseed, palm, soybean, vegetable, and canola oils; as well as trans fats and trans fatty acids. These oils are commonly found in commercial baked goods, frosting, potato chips, fried food, refrigerated dough, shortening, margarine and coffee creamer. And organic, processed food isn't safe, either.

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These fats aren't any good for you; rather, they’re the major source of artificial trans fats in the food supply. And while the FDA has ruled that trans fats must be omitted from all processed foods by June of this year (the World Health Organization says they ought to be gone worldwide by 2023), buyer beware: A 2015 Environmental Working Group study found that processed food manufacturers — organic and non — “hide” trans fats in their products, even labeling them "0 grams” of trans fat when they’re hiding under different names.

What do they trans fats do, exactly? Lower your good cholesterol, raise your bad, and amplify your risk for heart disease. Companies that process food will find ways around the ban--and ways to keep these fats in your food without you knowing. Pay attention to those labels!

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High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS), aka HFCS-9, or fructose: High fructose corn syrup is similar to sucrose, which is table sugar; but this stuff is cheaper and highly processed. One major problem with it? It may prevent your body from recognizing leptin, one of the hormones involved in signaling to your brain that you’re full. That means you’ll eat more — and too much sugar in your body can lead to diabetes, obesity, and other issues.

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A quick warning here: Sweetened cane juice and agave are not much better as far as sweeteners go. In fact, they may be worse. Cane juice and agave come super-concentrated and highly processed. The conception is that they’re better because they’re "natural." Nope. Sugar is sugar is sugar. Tread carefully.

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Phosphates: Sodium phosphate, calcium phosphate, potassium phosphate and sodium acid pyrophosphate are doozies on all fronts. They're also everywhere. While the USDA banned tetrasodium pyrophosphate, a food additive in organic non-meat alternatives back in 2016, the others are still allowed. Phosphorus itself isn’t the problem. It occurs naturally in your diet and helps you maintain healthy bones and teeth and contributes to your growth and energy production.

But in food additives, it’s a different story. Your body processes those chemicals differently, and can have negative impacts on your kidney and liver function. Not only are phosphate additives bad for you, they’re also bad for the water. When phosphates leach into the water supply from sewage treatment plants and other sources, they reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen in the water, increase the amount of algae, and change the entire ecosystem.

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Carrageenan: Carrageenan is an edible, red, seaweed-based thickening and stabilizing agent added to ice cream, cottage cheese, yogurt, almond milk, coconut milk, canned goods, and some meats. It’s in organic and non-organic food alike. As a food additive, it isn’t known to be carcinogenic, but it's become controversial as some studies suggest that it causes gastrointestinal inflammation when consumed excessively.

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The bottom line? Carrageenan is added to food to give it a smooth texture, and isn't necessary. While the jury's still out on just how bad this additive might be for you, you can mind your food labels and limit your exposure.

Bottom line: Minimize (or eliminate) processed foods from your diet!

How can you ensure you’re not consuming processed foods with these chemicals? Short answer: You can’t. But you can choose to limit — or eliminate — your consumption of processed foods in general.

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First step? Read the label. If you don’t understand everything on that label or why it’s there, you’re safest bet is to leave it on the shelf, go home, and make your own. Try to buy organic when you can, but know that packaged food is still processed with chemicals, some of which hide behind names you may not recognize.

Bottom line? Do all you can to make choices you can live with, that support your health and the environment.

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