Alarming ingredients in highly processed foods are harmful

Social media might be awash with glossy snaps of salads, smoothie bowls and other virtuous dishes but these photos don’t look anything like what the majority of us eat everyday.

A new study by the University of Sao Paolo found that UK shoppers are the least likely to fill their trolleys with fresh foods, with more than 50 per cent of us filling baskets with processed items. 

To help the country eat more healthily, Women’s Health magazine has now come up with a guide to the ingredients found lurking in many processed foods that we should try to avoid, which it has shared with FEMAIL.

From saturated fat-laden palm oil to artificial sweeteners, which are linked to long-term weight gain, these are the words to watch out for on the backs of labels so you can make more informed, healthy choices next time you visit the supermarket. 


Most of us know that highly processed foods such as crisps and soft drinks aren’t good for us – but now research reveals exactly why they are so unhealthy and it’s all due to some ingredients they contain

Palm oil is a very common ingredient in many processed foods – mostly because it is one of the cheapest oils so manufacturers often choose it for their products.

However it contains high levels of bad saturated fats, which research from the University of Montreal found can put your metabolism on pause and lead to obesity, high blood pressure and even heart disease.


Most people now know that artificial colours – aka E numbers – are not good for you, particularly after the Food Standards Agency banned six that were linked to hyperactivity in children back in 2008.

Food manufacturers have taken notice, and artificial colours have mostly been replaced with natural substitutes in the last 10 years in the UK and in Europe. 

But not all artificial colours are banned in the UK, and a report a few years ago found that some children’s medicines contain them, so it’s important to still check the label.

American researchers found that certain artificial colours, particularly caramel colours found in soft drinks, can be carcinogenic. 

Artificial colourings have not been banned in the US, so it’s important to be vigilant if you want to avoid your or your children consuming these when travelling.


Artificial sweeteners are linked to heart disease and obesity – try switching to natural alternatives such as stevia

A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal last year found that artificial sweeteners are associated with weight gain, as well as an increased risk of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure. 

Another study by Harvard Medical School also found that aspartame, an artificial sweetener found in many diet products, including Diet Coke, blocks an enzyme in the gut that prevents obesity and diabetes, and also increases appetite.

4. MSG (Monosodium Glutamate)

There is some debate about this ingredient most often found in takeaways, with some claiming it’s not as bad as everyone says.

But research published in ‘The Journal of Head and Face Pain’ found that it can cause headaches, particularly if you often get migraines. 


Heavily processed foods such as chicken nuggets and chips can cause migraines, and lead to a risk of cancer, heart disease, diabetes and obesity

Nitrites, otherwise known as sodium nitrates, are often used to preserve food, mostly meat.

However some studies have found that nitrates can combine with amino acids and form chemical compounds called nitrosamines, which are carcinogenic.

The latest issue of Women’s Health is out now

To avoid nitrates, buy fresh meat from a butcher or butcher’s counter. 


A key ingredient in many processed foods, American researchers have found that consuming too much of this sweet syrup can lead to excess weight gain because it boosts levels of fat-storing hormones in the body. 

7. BHT

BHT, or Butylhydroxytoluene, is a preservative added to foods such as cereals to protect them from going rancid too quickly.

But a study at Cedar-Sinai Medical Centre in the US last year showed that it can lead to weight gain as the ingredient interferes with the signals from your brain telling you that you are full and should stop eating.

If those signals stop working, you can overeat and gain excessive weight. 


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