What's the one food you refuse to eat? Whatever it is, it's probably because you don't like the way it tastes, not always because it contains ingredients suspected of causing cancer or because it was picked by farmers wearing Hazmat suits. Yet, there are still a lot of foods that fit that description on store shelves, and food industry insiders, who know what goes on behind the scenes, refuse to eat them.
We polled some of those insiders—people who know the business and work daily to evict pesticides, genetically modified organisms, animal cruelty, social injustice, and unhealthy foods from the food supply—to find out what they know about the dark side of "convenience" foods and what they will eat. Take note so you, too, can avoid the worst of what grocery stores have to offer.
William Davis, MD, creator of Wheat Belly 10-Day Detox
The Problem: Modern wheat is nothing like the grain your mother or grandmother consumed. Today, wheat barely resembles its original form, thanks to extensive genetic manipulations during the 1960s and 1970s to increase the grain's yields. "You cannot change the basic characteristics of a plant without changing its genetics, biochemistry, and its effects on humans who consume it," Dr. Davis notes.
Dr. Davis makes the case that modern-day wheat is triggering all sorts of health problems, everything from digestive diseases like celiac and inflammatory bowel disease to acid reflux, obesity, asthma, and skin disorders. "If there is a food that yields extravagant, extraordinary, and unexpected benefits when avoided, it is bread," says Dr. Davis. "And I don’t mean white bread, I mean all bread: white, whole wheat, whole grain, sprouted, organic, French, Italian, fresh, day-old…all of it."
The Solution: Try eliminating wheat altogether from your diet for a few weeks to see if you note health improvements. But be prepared for the wheat withdrawal syndrome of nausea, headache, fatigue and depression, and a host of other strange side effects of going grain-free during your first wheat-free week, since there are opiates that develop from the gliadin protein of wheat. Once you are through this process, you'll feel better, maybe better than you have in years.
Will Clower, PhD, author of
The Problem: The health benefits of coffee are pretty impressive, so don't go throwing them away by splashing non-dairy creamer in your morning joe. Fake creamers are full of hard-to-pronounce ingredients, including liver-damaging high-fructose corn syrup, inflammatory hydrogenated oils that would never exist in nature, and artificial flavors.
The Solution: Drink your coffee black, or if you want to add cream, opt for organic from grass-fed cows or organic unsweetened coconut milk without the food additive carrageenan.
Ellen Gustafson, author of
The Problem: Concord grapes are delicious (and are one of the few fruits native to North America), but the way most of us taste them is in the form of high-fructose-laden grape jelly. "Even though it's given away for free like ketchup in little plastic packets, it's basically a jelly-textured candy loaded with various forms of sugar, artificial colors, and flavors," Gustafson says.
The Solution: Gustafson suggests opting for real fruit, honey, or apple butter on your PB&(F, H, or AB) sandwich. If you do reach for jelly in the store, look for low-sugar, organic versions—organic bans the use of artificial colors and flavors and requires that the grapes be grown without the use of chemical pesticides. (Nonorganic grapes are one of the most pesticide-laden fruits.)
Isaac Eliaz, MD, founder of Amitabha Medical Clinic and Healing Center
The Problem: Dr. Eliaz stays away from any diet soda and foods, sugar-free candies, and gum containing artificial sweeteners such as sucralose, aspartame, acesulfame K, and neotame, among others. "The safety data on these sweeteners is shrouded in controversy and conflicts of interest with the manufacturers of these chemical compounds," Dr. Eliaz warns. "Independent research strongly suggests that when metabolized in the body, these sweeteners can cause health-related issues and problems related to metabolism and weight gain, neurological diseases, joint pain, digestive problems, headaches, depression, inflammatory bowel disease, chemical toxicity, and cancer, among others."
The Solution: From its weight gain effects to the overload of artificial sweeteners, the disturbing side effects of soda are enough to break the fizzy habit. If you're craving a soda but want to avoid the shady sweeteners, fake food dyes, and preservatives found in popular brands, try making one of these naturally flavored water recipes, or brew your own kombucha, a naturally bubbly fermented tea that's easy to make at home.
Frederick vom Saal, PhD, professor of biological sciences, University of Missouri at Columbia
The Problem: The resin linings of tin cans contain bisphenol-A, or BPA, a synthetic estrogen that has been linked to ailments ranging from reproductive problems to heart disease, diabetes, and obesity. Studies show that the BPA in most people's bodies exceeds the amount that suppresses sperm production or causes chromosomal damage to the eggs of animals. "You can get 50 micrograms of BPA per liter out of a tomato can, and that's a level that is going to impact people, particularly the young," says vom Saal. "I won't go near canned tomatoes."
The Solution: To avoid negative BPA health effects, choose tomatoes in glass bottles (which do not need resin linings), such as the brands Eden Organic and Bionaturae. You can also look for tomatoes in Tetra Pak boxes instead of cans.
Douglas Powell, PhD, food safety consultant, barfblog.com
The Problem: Sprouts have been the source of so many major food recalls that they're really not worth the risk, Powell says. Be they bean or broccoli, alfalfa or pea, sprouts have been at the center of at least 55 outbreaks of foodborne illness, affecting more than 15,000 people over the last 20 years. Often, sprouts harbor salmonella, E. coli, or listeria; they're vulnerable to contamination because the seeds require moist, warm conditions in order to sprout—ideal conditions for bacteria to thrive and multiply in.
The Solution: Get the crunch of sprouts—without the added bacteria—by shredding cabbage or carrots onto your sandwiches. If you really enjoy the flavor of sprouts, cook them first, but watch out for cross-contamination.
Tasneem Bhatia, MD, author of
The Problem: A single chicken wing has 81 calories and 5 grams of fat. Given that most people don't eat just one, a lone feast of chicken wings could easily lead to 1,000 extra calories and 50 grams of fat—nearly two or three days worth of artery-clogging fat! "Since 500 extra calories per day leads to two pounds per week, chicken wings are a recipe for weight gain," Dr. Bhatia says.
The Solution: If you like chicken, try baked or grilled versions to avoid a calorie overload. Since conventional chicken feed often contains antibiotics to stimulate faster growth (and sometimes even arsenic), choose organic whenever you can. If you want to go the veggie route, try this delicious vegan Buffalo wings alternative.
Robert Kenner, director of
The Problem: While filming Food Inc., Kenner says he wanted to film strawberry farmers applying pesticides to their fields. "The workers wear these suits to protect themselves from the dozens and dozens of known dangerous pesticides applied to strawberries," he says. "When I saw this, I thought to myself, if this is how berries are grown, I don't really want to eat them anymore. I haven't been able to eat a nonorganic strawberry ever since." Unfortunately, for the food-concerned public, he wasn't able to get footage of these farmers. "I guess they didn't think it looked too appetizing."
The Solution: Opt for organic strawberries! The Environmental Working Group, which analyzes U.S. Department of Agriculture pesticide-residue data, has found 13 different pesticide residues on conventionally grown strawberries.
Alexandra Scranton, director of science and research at Women’s Voices for the Earth
The Problem: Diacetyl is used in a lot of fake butter flavorings, despite the fact that the chemical is so harmful to factory workers that it's known to cause an occupational disease called "popcorn lung," Scranton says. After news of the chemical got out to the popcorn-eating public, companies started replacing diacetyl with another additive—which can actually turn into diacetyl under certain conditions, she adds. Neither chemical is disclosed on microwave-popcorn bags because the exact formulations of flavorings are considered trade secrets. "It's a classic example of the need for better chemical regulation and improved transparency on the chemicals used in our food and other household products," she says.
The Solution: Make your own popcorn using real butter. Pop it on the stovetop in a pot or go an easier homemade popcorn route: Put a small handful of kernels into a brown paper lunch bag and stick the bag in the microwave. The kernels will pop just like those fake-butter-flavored kernels in standard microwave popcorn bags. When they're done, pour some melted organic butter over them. "Makes pretty good popcorn at a fraction of the cost!" Scranton says.
Leah Zerbe, editor at Rodale Wellness
The Problem: Green beans are consistently rated one of the riskiest picks in your produce aisle. In a recent Consumer Reports report, researchers found that green beans tainted with chemical insecticide acephate—and its breakdown product methamidophos—ranked No. 1 as a risk driver for chemical contamination. Its use on green beans accounted for around one-half of total risk across all pesticides and food. Because of this, green beans fall into the report's "very high-risk vegetable" category. And the thing about green beans is that they are consistently contaminated with toxic pesticides. Looking at the measure of both the amount of pesticide residues found on the beans and the chemicals' toxicity, green beans have landed on the very-high-risk category nearly every year since testing began in 1992.
The Solution: Make sure you always opt for organic green beans. Better yet, plant your own. They're incredibly easy to grow, take up little room in the garden, and produce a bountiful harvest in less than two months.
Margaret I. Cuomo, MD, author of
The Problem: "Fish is naturally low in saturated fat, and some types, like salmon, are also high in omega-3 fat, reducing the risk of stroke and heart attack and inflammation throughout the body. While Americans need to eat more seafood and less red meat, some fish such as farmed salmon are contaminated with carcinogenic chemicals such as PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), pesticides (including dieldrin and toxaphene) and antibiotics," she says. And unlike wild salmon, farmed salmon are fed a mixture of other fish ground into fishmeal and fish oil, and they concentrate more toxins in their fat tissue than do other fish, Dr. Cuomo notes.
The Solution: "Fish is an important part of my family's diet, and I am very careful to choose wild salmon, rather than farmed salmon, which contains many carcinogens," Dr. Cuomo says.
Dave Asprey, author of
The Problem: "If you could pick one type of fat that would destroy your performance, decrease your brain function, damage your health, and shorten your life, it would have to be margarine and other trans fats," Asprey says. "They lower your HDL cholesterol and increase your risk of heart disease, increase your triglyceride levels, and damage your arteries and your heart." Not only that, but the inflammatory fats found in margarine impact brain function through inflammation.
The Solution: Instead of margarine, Asprey recommends fats like ghee, avocado oil, coconut oil, and grass-fed butter. Or get a healthy dose of healthy fat with this Bulletproof coffee recipe.
Mark Moyad, MD, MPH, author of
The Problem: Vitamins in the form of candy? Sounds like a dream to the parents of picky eaters. Too bad it's too good to be true. Each serving is about 15 calories a day and, while 2 or 3 grams of sugar a day (often as corn syrup) doesn't seem like much, Dr. Moyad points out that this translates to nearly 6 cups of sugar a year. Not to mention, gummies contain artificial food dyes and can contain a laundry list of other problematic ingredients: "Many contain gluten, and some also contain corn syrup, carmine, and pregelatinized cornstarch," he says.
The Solution: "Always go to food for nutrition first," says Dr. Moyad. "Don't teach kids to rely on pills at such a young age." Liquid multivitamins can be a good alternative for kids (especially those who can't swallow pills). Double-check the labels for dyes first, and pick one that touts the NSF certification.
Jean Nick, senior information analyst at the Rodale Library
The Problem: This frat-house staple contains ingredients like MSG that can actually trigger not just excessive food cravings, but painful migraines, too. In fact, Baylor University researchers recently found that eating instant noodles two or more times a week increases your risk of cardiometabolic syndrome, raising your likelihood of developing heart disease and other conditions, such as diabetes and stroke, explains Nick.
The Solution: To avoid one of the worst ingredients in the ramen packets, MSG (and all of the sneaky names for MSG)—and to inject some nutrition into your cup of noodle meal—stir up this healthy instant noodle recipe.
Joel Salatin, sustainable farmer
The Problem: McDonald’s isn't just about food, it's about food mentality, according to Salatin. "It represents the pinnacle of factoryfarming and industrial food," he says. "The economic model is utterly dependent on stockholders looking for dividends without regards to farm profitability or soil development."
Fast food typically is loaded with all sorts of the ingredients mentioned elsewhere in our list: genetically engineered corn, food dyes, artificial sweeteners, and other bad actors in the food supply. The type of farming that supports this type of food business relies on harmful chemicals that not only threaten human health, but also soil health.
The Solution: Learn to cook! You might be surprised to find that paying extra up front for a pasture-raised chicken can be cheaper than buying prepared fast-food chicken. For instance, cooking a chicken and then boiling down the bones for a rich, disease-fighting stock can yield up to three meals for a family! (Here's how to make homemade stock.) Find sustainable farmers at LocalHarvest.org.
Maryam Henein and George Langworthy, directors of
The Problem: Today's corn plants are more like little pesticide factories with roots. Most of the nation's corn supply is genetically engineered to either produce its own pesticide supply within the plant or withstand heavy sprayings of chemicals, which wind up inside of the food. That's problematic not just for bees, but for people, too. "I avoid corn because most is genetically modified, and on top of that, most of the seeds are treated with systemic pesticides that kill bees," says Henein. "And let’s not be fooled, the sublethal effects of these pesticides also slowly impair our health."
The Solution: In one form or another, corn is present in the vast majority of processed foods. From ketchup to salad dressing, and even bread, it’s hard to escape corn ingredients. One to especially look out for? "I always try to avoid foods containing high-fructose corn syrup," says Langworthy. "Not only is it unhealthy, but the pesticides used in the production of the corn is detrimental to honeybees and other pollinators."
To avoid genetically engineered corn, which has never been tested for longterm impacts on human health, choose USDA organic or Non-GMO Verified foods.
Maria Rodale, CEO of Rodale, Inc. and author of
The Problem: Ironically, there's a lot of evidence that suggests using artificial sweeteners, which have zero calories, is just as bad for your waistline as using regular, high-calorie sugar. For instance, research from the University of Texas has found that mice fed the artificial sweetener aspartame had higher blood sugar levels (which can cause you to overeat) than mice on an aspartame-free diet. Not only are they bad for your health, but scientists have also detected artificial sweeteners in treated wastewater, posing unknown risks to fish and other marine life. Plus, as Rodale says, "They're unnatural, nonorganic, taste horrible, and lead to all sorts of bad health consequences, false expectations, and short-term strategic thinking."
The Solution: Refined white sugar isn't any healthier, but you can replace it with small amounts of nutritious sweeteners, including honey, blackstrap molasses, and maple syrup, all of which have high levels of vitamins and minerals, or make homemade healthy sweeteners that are far better for your diet.
Gerard E. Mullin, MD, author of
The Problem: "Refined honey is among the most insidious sweeteners of all time," says Dr. Mullin. The pasteurization process eliminates the health properties of honey, essentially turning it into just another form of sugar. To make things more confusing, research has shown that more than 75 percent of honey has been processed to the point where it isn't even considered honey anymore. Some honey is even blended with high-fructose corn syrup, additives, and other flavorings.
The Solution: In moderation, raw honey from your local farmer's market has the opposite effect on your health. "Good data show that a teaspoon or less per day of raw honey has positive effects on gut microbimone health," Dr. Mullin says. Raw honey may have an antimicrobial effect against harmful pathogens in your gut, including E. coli. At the same time, this superfood can help promote the growth of healthy bacteria. "Honey also has anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, immune-regulating, and anti-tumor properties," he points out. It can also improve many aspects of your health, including allergies, bone health, diabetes, and wound healing.
Robert Lustig, MD, author of
The Problem: Don't trust the health halo claims associated with the natural sweetener agave. While it is technically a low-glycemic food, it actually drives up blood fructose, which is way worse, Dr. Lustig explains. "Fructose causes seven times more cell damage than glucose because it binds to cellular proteins seven times faster and releases 100 times the number of oxygen radicals (like hydrogen peroxide, which damages cells)," he notes.
In addition, fructose is turned into fat in the liver, which contributes to the development of metabolic diseases like type 2 diabetes. "Glycemic index is irrelevant; fructose damages your body unrelated to glycemic index. Agave nectar should have a skull and crossbones," Dr. Lustig says.
The Solution: Retrain your tastebuds to not want excessively sweet foods. When you feel like reaching for something sweet, try one of these 25 sugar-free ways to stop sugar cravings instead.
Josh Axe, DNM, DC, CNS, author of
The Problem: Table salt starts out as a healthy sea salt, but the extreme processing that happens next makes this one of the worst things you can put in your body. Manufacturers strip it of all its minerals and heat it to around 1,200 degrees, completely changing its chemical structure. Then, the naturally-occurring iodine that was destroyed is replaced with potassium iodide, and the salt is stabilized with dextrose, which turns it purple. Finally, it is bleached white.
The Solution: For an all-natural, unprocessed way to add flavor to food, choose Celtic sea salt or Himalayan salt. You'll also get a heavy dose of health benefits, including bone support, improved cognitive function and pH balancing.
Michael F. Jacobson, PhD, executive director of Center for Science in the Public Interest
The Problem: Small studies link some food dyes to hyperactivity in children and cancer in animals, and that's one reason Jacobson avoids them. Red #3 causes cancer in lab rats, and Yellow #5 and Yellow #6 may contain cancer-causing contaminants. Food dyes, often used together with artificial and natural flavorings, are used to make foods appear more healthful than they actually are and to replace truly healthy ingredients like fruit, fruit juice, and vegetables. For instance, Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast contains no berry or cherry juice, but lots of the artificial dye Red #40.
The Solution: Read labels anytime you're considering buying a prepackaged food. Food dyes can crop up in some really unexpected places, even in healthy foods like cheese and yogurt. The good news? Some companies are starting to remove food dye from foods.
Natasha Turner, ND, author of
The Problem: While everyone loves a good barbecue, grilling meats can produce carcinogens if you aren’t careful. The two most associated with charring are HCAs (heterocyclic amines) and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons). HCAs form when meat is cooked at high temperatures; PAHs are created when the flames touch the meat or when fat drips into the flames and produces smoke, which then rises and coats the food.
The Solution: To grill more healthfully, lower the heat on your gas grill or increase the distance between the fire and the meat if using a charcoal grill. Choose smaller cuts of meat, flip them often, and use a meat thermometer when cooking at lower temperatures so you can check to be sure the meat is fully cooked. Homemade grilling marinades, particularly ones containing rosemary, can reduce the risk of HCAs by up to 99 percent.
Mark Kastel, cofounder at Cornucopia Institute
The Problem: Insects love potatoes. To counter that, nonorganic farmers generally spray chemicals on potato plants several times a year in the field. "But if that's not enough, in many production systems, their vines are sprayed with an herbicide just prior to harvest so they can be more easily harvested," Kastel explains. After harvest and washings, potatoes are often sprayed with a mold and sprout inhibitor—right on the skin, the high-fiber part that is also high in nutrients that we all should all be eating.
The Solution: Buy organic potatoes, including antioxidant-rich blue potatoes, at your farmer's market. "They are cheap and have one of the lowest premiums you need to pay to eat organically," Kastel notes.
Anne Alexander, author of
The Problem: Don't trust front-of-label packaging to figure out whether a cereal is truly healthy. "I've seen breakfast cereals with up to 10 different kinds of sugar!" says Alexander. Not only is sugar toxic and a threat to healthy blood sugar levels, but it can also trigger overeating, lead to dangerous fat built up around your liver, and cause accelerated aging.
The Solution: Always read the label and check for hidden sugars on the ingredients list—especially in healthy-sounding cereals. Sugar lurks in dozens of different ingredient names, including sucrose, cane sugar, evaporated cane juice, agave, fruit juice concentrate, and high-fructose corn syrup, among others. All of that adds up! "I try to aim for no more than 5 to 6 grams of sugar per serving and as much fiber as possible—I look for at least 5 grams of fiber per serving—in my cereal."
Philippe Cousteau, explorer and cofounder of EarthEcho
The Problem: Bluefin tuna is overfished and on the verge of collapse, thanks to the global appetite for this type of tuna, largely from sushi restaurants. Stock of the fish is down a shocking 96 percent.
The Solution: You can still enjoy seafood, but look for sustainable options. Download Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch app for a handy, go-to guide.
Keeve Nachman, PhD, MHS, director of Food Production and Public Health at Johns Hopkins' Center for a Livable Future
The Problem: Your supermarket meat could be coated in superbugs. In the U.S., most industrially produced meat comes from farm animals fed antibiotics, which can promote the growth and spread of bacteria that are able to withstand the antibiotics we rely on to treat infections in people. Government research has turned up bacteria on grocery store meat samples that are resistant to multiple important antibiotics.
The Solution: "If I eat meat, I want to be sure it's cooked to a temperature that will inactivate or kill those bacteria," Nachman says. "I also am careful to clean meat preparation surfaces and utensils."
Jillian Michaels, fitness expert
The Problem: Heart disease has become the number one killer in America. One main culprit, Michaels says: Trans fats, aka hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated oils, vegetable oils that have been "reconfigured" to extend their shelf life (but that ultimately harm your cholesterol levels). A medium fry from a fast-food restaurant could contain as much as a whopping 14.5 grams of this fat. That's significant because there are no safe levels of trans fats, according to many public health experts. In fact, if only 3 percent of your daily calorie intake is from trans fats, your risk of heart disease goes up by 23 percent, Michaels notes. "Although fast-food fries are a main culprit, I highly recommend reading your food labels and avoiding this toxic preservative wherever and whenever possible," she says.
The Solution: Bake your fries at home using this simple recipe: Preheat your oven to 450 degrees F. Cut a potato into wedges. (Soak potatoes to reduce harmful acrylamide levels.) Mix together 1 Tablespoon olive oil, 1/2 teaspoon paprika, 1/2 teaspoon garlic powder, and 1/2 teaspoon onion powder. Coat the potato wedges with the oil/spice mixture and place on a baking sheet. Bake for 45 minutes in preheated oven.
Andrew Weil, MD, founder of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine
The Problem: Chips, pretzels, and most packaged pastries are highly processed manufactured foods and are typically loaded with some combination of sugar, salt, and unhealthy oils, so they rank high on the glycemic index. "They contribute to blood sugar deregulation and systemic inflammation," Dr. Weil says.
The Solution: Choose healthy snacks—they can be satisfying and delicious. "Consider seasonal fresh fruit alone or mixed with a dollop of organic plain Greek yogurt and a sprinkle of freshly ground flaxseed; a small handful of walnuts, cashews, or almonds; or a small piece of high-quality
Andy Sharpless, CEO of Oceana and author of
The Problem: These shrimp facts are enough to turn your stomach. The most popular seafood in the American diet, our taste for shrimp has an astounding environmental impact and potentially threatens our health, too. For each pound of wild shrimp harvested from oceans, there are between three and 10 pounds of bycatch pulled onto the boat deck—including sea turtles and many juvenile fish. Farmed shrimp generally comes from mangrove forests, which have been clear-cut and turned into filthy ponds doused with antibiotics to ward off disease. "If you want to be a responsible seafood eater, I'm sorry to say you have to give up shrimp," Sharpless says.
The Solution: When it comes to the best seafood choices, Sharpless says you're better off eating wild or farmed shellfish like oysters, mussels, and clams, which are filter feeders and help clean the ocean as they grow. "Unlike farmed shrimp, these guys are an ally in keeping the oceans healthy," he explains.
Louise Greenspan, MD, and Julianna Deardorff, PhD, authors of
The Problem: These drinks are typically sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup, an ingredient linked to weight gain and early menstruation in girls. "The high doses of caffeine can also disrupt sleep, an essential component for health and emotional well-being during the pubertal years," the authors note. Energy drinks often contain potentially carcinogenic additives, such as caramel coloring.
The Solution: Water is best. If you're dealing with an energy slump, try working these foods that give you energy into the mix.
Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States
The Problem: Foie gras, the unnaturally fatty liver of a duck or goose, is traditionally thought of as a luxury food item. But the bird lives a far from luxurious life. "The way foie gras is produced involves extreme animal cruelty," says Pacelle. The ducks are force-fed three times daily for weeks on end, causing their livers to swell more than 10 times their normal size, leading to diseased organs. "The feeding makes it difficult for the animals even to walk," Pacelle says. "That's too much cruelty for a mere table treat."
The Solution: If you enjoy the texture of foie gras, but not the animal cruelty, Pacelle recommends trying Faux Gras, a healthy lentil-walnut paté.
Jayson Calton, PhD, and Mira Calton, CN, authors of
The Problem: Don't ruin your healthy salad by dumping inflammatory oils all over it. "Most salad dressings on the market today use canola or soybean oil—two major GMO-laden, pro-inflammatory no-nos," says Jayson Calton. Mira points out that even organic versions still contribute to the unhealthy, pro-inflammatory omega-6/omega-3 imbalance. "Due to the adverse processing methods for corn, soybean, canola, safflower, or cottonseed oils, you are essentially ingesting oxidized molecules that wreak immediate havoc on healthy cellular function," she says. "The bottom line is that these oils are not healthy and should be avoided at all costs."
The Solution: Make your own salad dressing with fresh healthy oils and organic vinegar—it's super easy. Olive oil is OK, say the Caltons, but it can be high in inflammatory omega-6s (if you do go with olive oil, always opt for cold-pressed, extra-virgin). Safer oils include peanut, sesame, avocado, macadamia, flaxseed, and fish oils. Simply combine the oil of your choice with your favorite herbs, garlic, red wine vinegar, and voilà—homemade Italian dressing!
Jean Nick, senior information analyst at the Rodale Library
The Problem: Egg yolks contain more than 80 percent of the overall vitamins, minerals, and healthy fatty acids found in an egg. Without fat you can't absorb the protein in the egg white effectively, either, Nick notes. Egg yolks are also a rich source of choline, which plays a major part in providing structural integrity and signaling roles for cell membranes.
The Solution: Invest in high-quality eggs and feel good about eating the yolks and all. The 2015-2020 dietary guidelines note that dietary cholesterol isn't something you need to worry about anymore. So how do you buy the best eggs? The gold-standard egg comes from organic hens raised on fresh pasture.
Jonathan Psenka, ND, author of
The Problem: Most people eat diets that contain an overabundance of refined carbohydrates, and one of the most common culprits is pasta. These refined carbs are essentially stripped of their nutritional value, and when eaten cause high levels of both blood sugar and insulin. "While blood sugar problems like diabetes are certainly a major concern with increased intakes of refined carbs, the real danger is the amount of inflammation that overconsumption of these 'foods' can cause," Dr. Psenka warns. "Excessive inflammation is a driving factor in all the diseases of lifestyle we are plagued with today, from allergies, obesity, and diabetes, to heart disease and cancer."
And how's this for a scary stat: People who eat high intakes of refined carbohydrates, like most Americans, have been found to have up to three times the risk of dying from an inflammatory disease.
Holly Phillips, MD, author of
The Problem: Completely devoid of nutrients, this childhood favorite actually carries a warning label in Europe that reads, "May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." This is largely because of chemical called Red #40, an ingredient link to hyperactivity. "Most boxes contain more than 10 milligrams of artificial food dyes, artificial flavors, and a preservative called BHA, which has been deemed a 'reasonably anticipated human carcinogen' by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Toxicology Program," Dr. Phillips points out.
In addition to a delivering a big dose of sugar (or artificial sweeteners), boxed gelatin mixes are just kind of icky—it's derived from by-products left over from processing (mostly factory-farmed) livestock, mostly collagen harvested from cow and pig skins, hides, and bones.
The Solution: If you are really craving a bowl of the jiggly dessert, look for a more natural, plant-based version made of agar-agar.
Will Clower, PhD, author of
The Problem: As high-cocoa chocolate becomes more recognized as a healthy food option, more people are choosing dark chocolate over milk chocolate. But some kinds of cocoa, the source of the majority of dark chocolate's health benefits, are dramatically better than others. In fact, analysis shows that when cocoa has been "Dutch processed" and/or "processed with alkali," it can lose between 60 to 90 percent of its health-boosting antioxidants. Choosing brands without Dutch processing is key to making sure your chocolate is as healthy as it can be.
The Solution: When buying cocoa itself, look for natural unsweetened. For dark chocolate bars, Dutch-processed versions will have to indicate that processing on the label, so be sure to avoid any that list it.
Talia Fuhrman, author of
The Problem: An apple is the quintessential health food. Too bad conventionally grown apples harbor some pretty damaging hitchhikers. "Conventional apples may contain as many as 47 different pesticide residues on just a single apple," says Fuhrman. "Some of these pesticides, such as thiabendazole and pyrimethanil, are known and/or probable carcinogens. Other pesticides commonly found on apples, such as carbendazim, are hormone disruptors." It's not surprising, then, that apples routinely make the Environmental Working Group's Dirty Dozen list of pesticide-laden produce.
The Solution: Go organic. You shouldn't give up on apples altogether because, as Fuhrman points out, an apple a day can keep the oncologist away—research suggests daily apple consumption is linked to a lower risk of common cancers. Removing the peel of a nonorganic apple might mitigate your exposure to the pesticides it was sprayed with, but doing so means you're missing out on the best part of the apple: "The most beneficial antioxidants in apples are located in the skin," says Fuhrman. "Plus, organic apples taste infinitely better than conventional apples!"
Dawna Stone, author of
The Problem: Fruit is rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, and phytonutrients—but fruit juice does not provide the same health benefits. "Even if you are label conscious and purchase 100 percent real fruit juice or make your own fresh squeezed juice at home, you need to beware of the high sugar content," Stone warns. A glass of fruit juice can have as much sugar as a can of soda, not to mention it's void of one of fruit's main health benefits—its high fiber content.
The Solution: Next time you think about grabbing a tumbler of juice, consider opting for a splash of real fruit juice to a glass of still or sparkling water. Not enough juice to satisfy your craving? Combine whole fruit and ice in a blender for a refreshing and satisfying smoothie. Even better, opt for a green vegetable juice and add the juice of a half a green apple. "I find just ½ an apple or other fruit gives my nutrient-dense green juice just the right amount of sweetness," Stone says.
Jen Hansard and Jadah Sellner, authors of
The Problem: Popular brand name smoothies often contain 25-plus grams of sugar in a tiny 8-ounce smoothie! That's more like drinking a soda in terms of sugar. "A great thing about blending from home is controlling what goes into blender," the authors say.
The Solution: Take control of your smoothies! The great part? You can actually save money making smoothies at home. A great option is this Raspberry Coconut Shortcake green smoothie—great taste with less sugar! And don't worry if you mangle a DIY green smoothie. Just use these tricks to save a green smoothie fail.
William Davis, MD, creator of Wheat Belly 10-Day Detox
The Problem: Gluten-free ingredients aren't always better for you, and some can actually make you gain weight. Rice flour falls on this list, according to Dr. Davis. This ingredient is commonly used in gluten-free processed foods," he warns. "It is awful for health and will completely shut down any hope of weight loss, often resulting in outright, sometimes outrageous, weight gain and inflammation." (Dr. Davis warns of other gluten-free foods to avoid, including tapioca flour.)
"Nothing raises blood sugar higher than the gluten-free junk carbohydrates in, say, gluten-free multigrain bread or gluten-free pasta—higher than even table sugar," Dr. Davis says. "Blood sugar that results from eating two slices of whole grain gluten-free bread made with potato flour, rice flour, and millet can easily top 180 mg/dL (in those without diabetes) over the first hour after consumption, regardless of the mayonnaise, meat, cheese, or other foods in the sandwich."
The Solution: There are indeed some food producers that have developed gluten-free and grain-free products that don't use junk carb ingredients and don't raise blood sugar and so are safe, but they remain in the minority. Better ingredients include
Drew Ramsey, MD, coauthor of
The Problem: The right kind of chocolate serves not only as a sweet treat but as a brain-boosting superfood, too. The problem is, white chocolate's health profile is blank. "The data on the health benefits of cacao is pretty awesome," says Dr. Ramsey. "Much of this is due to a set of amazing phytonutrients that can increase blood flow to the brain, protect blood vessels, and boost mood and focus. White chocolate is missing all this goodness."
Jennie Ripps and Maria Littlefield, authors of
The Problem: Raising a glass should be fun. You shouldn't have to stress over obscene sugar levels, fake food dyes with carcinogenic contaminants, or sketchy preservatives created so that the majority of cocktail drink mixers can sit on store shelves for years.
The Solution: If you're craving a tasty adult beverage, try the healthiest tequila cocktail ever rather than gamble with that neon-green goo on the grocery store shelf.
Michael Pollan, author of
The Problem: Cattle raised in filthy conditions, pumped full of growth hormones, and fed diets composed mostly of genetically modified corn are three major reasons humane, grass-fed ground beef is a better alternative for your burger. But they aren't the only ones, says Pollan. Also consider that while a steak or roast usually comes from a single animal, processors of ground beef combine meat from hundreds of animals. "This vastly increases the risk of contamination," he says. USDA scientists have found dangerous levels of disease-causing bacteria in more than 50 percent of ground beef samples they've tested.
The Solution: "I love hamburgers, but only eat them when they're grass-fed and ground by a butcher," Pollan says.
Philip Landrigan, MD, professor of preventive medicine and pediatrics, Mount Sinai
The Problem: One of Dr. Landrigan's No. 1 warnings to women who are pregnant or are looking to become pregnant? "Make avoiding mercury in fish a priority," he says. Swordfish is notoriously high in the heavy metal, a potent neurotoxin that can damage developing children and even trigger heart attacks in adults. Aside from obvious health concerns, swordfish is often overfished and some of the gear commonly used to wrangle in swordfish often kills turtles, seabirds, and sharks.
The Solution: For a healthy omega-3 brain boost, look for fish that are low in contaminants and have stable populations, such as
The invasive species lives on land and water, where it wipes out important frogs, birds, and other critters. Snakehead fish is popping up on some restaurant menus, and the taste and texture are about identical to swordfish.
Paul Kita, food and nutrition editor at Men's Health
The Problem: Call them "mash-up" foods. Call them novelty items. Just call them gross. Two fast-food wrongs (a low-quality taco and junk food chips, for instance) do not make a right, both in terms of flavor and nutrition. Marketers dream up these concoctions as a horrifying way to grab your attention.
The Solution: Create your own food mash-ups instead to avoid the Franken-ingredients and crazy food additives. Take some celery, slather on some peanut butter, and top with crumbled cooked bacon. Then, give your creation a hyped-up name—just like the marketeters do! Behold, the "CrunchMaster Bacon PB Supreme"!
Joanne Tobacman, MD, associate professor of medicine at the University of Illinois at Chicago
The Problem: Carrageenan, a go-to ingredient in condensed milk, is used primarily to improve "mouthfeel," but it could be the food additive triggering your digestive distress. In a statement to the National Organic Standards Board, Dr. Tobacman explained that carrageenan itself and its breakdown product both create dangerous inflammation, a condition that serves as the backbone of more than 100 human diseases, including inflammatory bowel disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and arteriosclerosis. Inflammation also fuels other life-threatening diseases, including cancer.
The Solution: Swap in regular milk for condensed milk, or try making your own homemade sweetened condensed milk rather than buying it at the grocery store. Watch out for carrageenan in other foods, too. It sometimes hides out in ice cream, chocolate milk, canned whipped cream, yogurt, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, and low-fat deli meats, so be sure to read labels, Dr. Tobacman warns.
Jonathan Latham, PhD, executive director of the Bioscience Resource Project
The Problem: We know that chemicals routinely used in GMO crops like corn and soy can prove fatal for bees and butterflies, but science is starting to prove they're doing a real number on humans, too. "When I am in the U.S., I do not eat corn chips because they are made from U.S. corn flour, which is mostly genetically engineered. Corn destined for corn flour is also usually sprayed with Roundup and usually contains neonicotinoids and fungicides," Latham says. "It is a true chemical cocktail." (The health hazards of neonicotinoids are only now being uncovered and include memory loss, heart palpatations, and fatigue.) The World Health Organization dubbed Roundup "probably carcinogenic to humans."
The Solution: Since all corn chips, even organic ones, are a highly processed food, opt for fresh fruit or nuts as a snack instead of chips.
Bill Phillips, editor-in-chief of Men's Health and author of
The Problem: A few glasses of wine can really help you unwind after a long workday. "Between my work schedule and the kids' activities, my days are nonstop. A couple of years ago, my wife and I noticed we weren't spending as much quality time together," Phillips says. "So we started a new tradition: After the kids went to bed, we'd uncork a nice cabernet and reconnect for an hour." Quickly, this became the highlight of their day. "But a month later, I noticed I'd gained a few pounds. It was the wine! The bottle is right there, open and beckoning. It's so easy to pour a second glass—even a third," Phillips says.
The Solution: Phillips says these days, he stops at one. "I just really savor it. I take small sips, and I really pay attention to the flavors in my mouth," he says. "I'm enjoying the wine more, and I'm saving 150 unnecessary calories before bed."
John McDougall, MD, author of
The Problem: In 2015, the World Health Organization announced that regularly eating processed meats can cause cancer, and that red meats—such as beef, pork, veal, and lamb—are "probably carcinogenic." The report went so far as to say that regularly eating bacon is on par with smoking and asbestos exposure in terms of cancer risk. Beyond that, eating meat is widely regarded as damaging the environment compared to a more plant-based diet.
The Solution: Dr. McDougall recommends incorporating lots of beans, lentils, potatoes, and veggies into your diet instead of lots of meat, given the environmental and health benefits of being vegetarian.
Leah Zerbe, editor at Rodale Wellness
The Problem: The truth is, even if you source the healthiest foods in the world, you're tainting it if you're cooking it or heating it up in plastic containers in the microwave. Studies show a wide variety of plastic chemicals become unstable and transfer into food when heated, and these plastic chemicals are linked to everything from cancer and developmental problems to infertility and weight gain.
The Solution: Microwave in glass or lead-free ceramic containers to keep toxic chemicals from migrating into your food. Transfer veggies designed to be microwaved in plastic bags into a glass bowl and cover with a ceramic dish to steam; do the same with any microwavable foods packaged in plastic trays. Want to go the extra mile? Opt for these plastic-free food storage solutions.