10 Additives in Natural Foods That Might Surprise You

Are you trying to eat healthier? Food processors design their packages to appeal to customers like you. But product claims can be deceiving.

You might be surprised by what you find in food packages labeled with such terms as "100% Natural," "More Whole Grains," or "Natural Flavors." Here are some additives to look out for the next time you go shopping.

Trader Joe's All Natural Turkey Hot Dogs with No Nitrates or Nitrites Added: Contains Nitrites

Trader Joe's All Natural Turkey Hot Dogs
Image via guavarose.com

Sodium nitrite is a preservative that processers use to stabilize the red color in cured meat (without nitrite, hot dogs and bacon would look gray) and impart a characteristic flavor. Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of potent cancer-causing chemicals called nitrosamines. Nitrite that also occurs in saliva and forms from nitrate in several vegetables can undergo the same chemical reaction in the stomach.

The labels on some "natural" hot dogs and other cured meats brag about "no added nitrite." Be skeptical. While those products may not contain added sodium nitrite, they often are made with celery powder or celery juice, which are naturally high in nitrite. Indeed in 2011, the New York Times revealed that "natural" cured meats could have 10 times as much nitrite as conventional products!

Fruit of the Earth Aloe Vera Juice: Carcinogenic Compounds

Aloe Vera Juice
Image via walmart.com

Aloe vera, which comes from a succulent plant, is sold as a juice and is added to foods, supplements, and skin care products. But just because it's natural doesn't mean it's safe to eat.

Carefully conducted studies by the U.S. government concluded that there was "clear" evidence that aloe vera extracts taken orally caused intestinal cancers in male and female rats. (There's no cancer concern for aloe vera used on the skin).

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCAM) notes other possible concerns: (1) People with diabetes who use glucose-lowering medication should be cautious about taking aloe vera by mouth since preliminary studies suggest it may lower blood glucose levels, and (2) the diarrhea caused by the laxative effect of aloe vera can decrease the absorption of many medications.

Given the possible risks, people should not eat or drink aloe vera. If you choose to consume it, at least look for products made with charcoal filtration, which lowers the level of components suspected of being cancer-causing—aloin and other anthraquinones.

Dannon Yogurt: Carmine, an Insect-Based Dye

Dannon Yogurt Oikos Strawberry with Carmine
Image via oikosyogurt.com

If you like Dannon yogurt, keep reading: Several varieties are colored with carmine, a red dye extracted from the dried, pulverized bodies of the cochineal insect. Dannon uses carmine in four flavors of Fruit on the Bottom yogurt: strawberry, raspberry, cherry, and boysenberry, and in the strawberry version of its Oikos Greek yogurt. It also shows up in various varieties of Dannon's berry-flavored Activia and Light and Fit Greek yogurts.

Carmine's presence is deceptive. Consumers rightly expect that yogurts are colored by the advertised fruits—and not by an extract made from six-legged critters.

For most consumers, carmine is safe to eat. But a small percentage of people who eat foods dyed with this insect extract have allergic reactions, ranging from a mild case of hives to life-threatening anaphylactic reactions. Some people who avoid animal products might also prefer not to eat this insect-derived dye.

Mott's "Fruit" Snacks: More Like "Corn Syrup" Snacks

Mott's Fruit Snacks
Image via motts.com

These fruit snacks contain pear and apple juice from concentrate. But concentrated fruit juice is more like added sugar than fresh fruit. The other main ingredients are corn syrup and sugar. The wholesome images on the box aside, fruit snacks are more like jelly beans and gummy bears.

If you're looking for a healthy snack for children, stick to carrot sticks, a banana, or apple and orange slices. Mott's so-called "fruit" snacks are clever marketing, but poor nutrition.

Quorn: Made from Processed Mold "Mycoprotein"

Quorn Mycoprotein Mold
Photo: CSPI

Though Marlow Foods advertises and labels Quorn-brand frozen meat substitutes as naturally occurring "mushroom protein" or "mushroom in origin," the mold (or fungus) from which it is made is not a mushroom. Rather, the mold is grown in liquid solution in large tanks.

Some people are sensitive to Quorn products, resulting in vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, and, less often, hives and potentially fatal anaphylactic reactions. Many people have gone to emergency rooms for treatment of Quorn-related reactions. In 2013, two children died after eating Quorn.

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