If you're trying to eat healthy, perhaps you have heard to stay away from processed foods. While that's great advice, it seems many people are confused about what exactly constitutes processed food.
If you can't identify them, it's hard to cut processed foods out of your diet. And although most people know processed foods are bad for them, it's often unclear what makes them so dangerous to a person's health.
Remember - processed foods are foods that have been altered from their natural state.
Have you ever wondered why a pre-packaged food stays fresh for months, when the same food made from scratch grows moldy in just days? It's because food manufacturers use man-made ingredients that prolong a product's shelf life. Unfortunately, they may have the opposite effect on peoples' health.
Physician to Patients: Trans Fats Will Kill You
For instance, trans fats are oils infused with hydrogen. They raise bad cholesterol and lower good cholesterol. Dr. Michael Aziz, author of the book, The Perfect 10 Diet, doesn't mince words when he tells his patients trans fats will kill them.
"Trans fats are really like plastic," he said, "and when we eat them they incorporate in our cells and the cells cannot communicate or talk to one another. In turn, hormones are disturbed, weight gain follows but more troubling, the risk for heart disease, cancer, stroke, infertility goes up."
Trans fats are commonly found in commercially fried food and packaged foods, especially baked goods. But you won't see the phrase, "trans fat" in the list of ingredients. Instead, look for the word, "hydrogenated."
And beware of labels claiming no trans fats. They're often still in there, because the Food and Drug Administation allows food with up to a half-gram of trans fat per serving to be labeled "trans fat free."
The problem is, those servings can be small so we eat many servings, and those half-grams add-up.
When Cooking, Go Back to the Basics
To give you an idea of how bad trans fats can be -- in New York City, it's against the law to cook with them.
Carey Cannizzaro is the executive chef at the popular Home Restaurant in Greenwich Village.
"You go back to basics," she said. "That's how you cook without hydrogenated oils. You go back to basics."
Cannizzaro says with a little know-how you can prepare any food that tastes better and is better for you without using trans fats.
"As fats, when we go for sweet we're using buttermilk," she said. "We're using butter, and savory we use extra virgin olive oil. We cook with a blend of extra virgin olive oil and vegetable oil, we fry with soy oil."
Customers dining at the trendy restaurant say they like not having to worry about what they're eating.
"It's a good thing," diner Johnny Kitchens said. "I don't see why we need trans fats anyway. We might as well be healthier, you know?"
Chef Cannizzaro points out that the Home Restaurant has never used trans fats, even back when it was legal to do so. She says she has always prided herself on cooking with only natural ingredients.
The problem was, trans fats are cheaper, and restaurants that used them could make more of a profit. Now, however, the playing field is level.
The Effects of High Frutose Corn Syrup
Vending machines are often loaded with processed foods. In addition to trans fats, they often contain too much salt, which can cause heart problems and creates a craving for even more salt.
Another addictive ingredient you'll find in processed foods is high fructose corn syrup, which is linked to obesity and diabetes. Although high fructose corn syrup manufacturers contend it's nutritionally the same as sugar, others say it's worse.
Former FDA toxicologist Dr. Dana Flavin says while sugar is burned and turned into energy, high fructose corn syrup turns into fat, causing what's known as "fatty liver." She says sugar can make you feel full, but high fructose corn syrup does not trigger the body's satisfaction gauge, so you always desire more.
"So you do eat more," Flavin explained. "You have a greater appetite because your body's saying, 'I haven't had enough' and your body's being fooled."
High fructose corn syrup is the main ingredient in soft drinks, but is also hidden in foods like bread and pasta sauce.
Dr. Steven Sinatra, author of Metabolic Cardiology, says high fructose corn syrup and its chemical cousins, are directly linked to high blood pressure and heart disease, which unfortunately, most doctors treat with medication instead of going to the source.
"He or she may prescribe drugs, when only the best treatment is loss of weight," Sinatra said. "Exercise and restriction of simple carbohydrates, sugars and high fructose corn syrup is at the top of the list."
Also on the list are other syrups and sweeteners like dextrose, glucose, lactose and maltose.
The Pitfalls of MSG
And speaking of chemical names, here's another one to watch out for: monosodium glutamate, or MSG for short. Food manufacturers like it because it adds flavor. But doctors dislike it because it causes high insulin secretion.
"It creates headaches, migranes, but it can also lead to weight gain," Aziz explained.
In addition to avoiding MSG, Dr. Aziz advises against eating ingredients that usually contain MSG like hydrolyzed protein, yeast extract, soy protein isolate, spices, natural flavorings, citric acid or anything with the word, "hydrolyzed" or "autolyzed."
"We have to be vigilant about excluding MSG with all its different names from our diet," Aziz said.
Believe it or not, even white flour is a processed food. Its soft texture and mild taste is created by removing the most nutritious parts of the wheat berry, the bran and the germ.
The starch leftover is digested too fast in the body and can lead to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease and cancer. By contrast, whole wheat flour includes the entire wheat berry, which is digested slowly, making us feel full longer.
Younger Skin Starts From The Inside
Processed foods not only create health risks, they also make us look old. Anti-aging specialist, Dr. Doris Day, author of the book, Forget the Facelift, and popular Manhattan celebrity doctor, says young-looking skin starts from the inside.
"A healthy diet is critical," she said. "Some of everything you eat, for better or worse, ends up in your skin. So if you have a lot of soda or chemicals, that's going to be a stress on your skin. High sugar foods, highly processed foods, you'll see it in the skin for sure."
Although identifying processed foods and removing them from our diet isn't easy, it may be less troubling than dealing with the health problems they could create.
*Originally published June 16, 2010.