bad ingredients in food

Top 8 Ingredients To Avoid At the Grocery Store

Choosing healthy food options for your family can be hard. Time and money often lead us to choose food that sacrifices nutritional content for convenience. How can you choose the best ingredients for your family? This list offers what ingredients to avoid at the grocery store and tips for healthier alternatives.

Artificial Colors

artificial colors are an ingredient to avoid

What are Artificial Colors?

Food dyes are synthetic artificial colors that were developed to enhance the look of food to make food products visually appealing.

A study of food labels in one supermarket found that more than 90 percent of child- oriented candies, fruit-flavored snacks, and drink mixes and powders are artificially colored. A majority of child-oriented foods made by such companies as Kraft, PepsiCo, and General Mills are dyed.

Lisa Y. Lefferts, M.S.P.H.,
Center for Science in the Public Interest

Why is it an Ingredient to Avoid?

Evidence shows that synthetic food dyes may exacerbate behavior problems in children with ADHD and individuals with heightened sensitivity to artificial food coloring. The FDA refers to this correlation but continues to allow the use of food dyes. In Europe, most common food dyes (Red dye no. 40 and Yellow food dyes no. 5 and no. 6) come with a warning label when sold in stores that say the dyes could cause “an adverse effect on activity and attention in children,”.

The article Seeing Red is a great resource if you are interested in learning more about the hazards of food dyes in American food.

What to Buy Instead

Look for candy and foods that are dyed with plant-derived colors. Although bright colors are fun and very appealing to kids, they don’t need artificial colors to enjoy their food. Set the standard in your home to avoid artificial colors when possible. My daughter has a very negative reaction to artificial colors, so we stock up on naturally colored treats. When she gets a sucker or bag of candy we swap it with a Trader Joe’s sucker or Amy’s Gummies.

You can also swap traditional food coloring for plant-derived

Bromated Flour

What is Bromated Flour?

Bromated flour improves the rise and elasticity of the dough.

Why is it an Ingredient to Avoid?

Bromated flour has been linked to cancer and kidney damage in several studies. In fact, bromated flour is banned in Europe, Canada, and several other countries. California added potassium bromate to the Proposition 65 list that informs consumers about harmful ingredients in products. Since 1991, the FDA has encouraged bakers to avoid the use of bromated flour but continues to allow the use in food production.



What are BHA & BHT?

Butylated Hydroxyanisole (BHA) and Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT) are preservatives and flavor enhancers that can be found in cereals, gum, fast food, processed potatoes, drink mixes, shortening, snack foods, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, rubber, and plastics. BHT and BHA prevent oils in foods from oxidizing and becoming rancid.

Why is it an Ingredient to Avoid?

There is evidence that BHA has the potential to have a carcinogenic effect on humans. It is also on California’s Proposition 65 list. BHT should be used with caution as well due to the possible link to cancer.

Artificial Sweeteners

sugar alternative

What are Artificial Sweeteners?

Artificial sweeteners provide sweetness to food without adding calories. The FDA has approved five artificial sweeteners: saccharin, acesulfame, aspartame, neotame, and sucralose and the naturally derived sweetener, stevia.

Why is it an Ingredient to Avoid?

Research shows that artificial sweeteners have been linked to weight gain, an increased risk of vascular events, risk metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes. This article from CNN breaks down the most current research about artificial sweeteners.

Saccharin packets once stated that this product may cause cancer in rats. Recent research has revealed that there is not enough evidence to support this statement. Although much of the research about artificial sweeteners causing cancer has been debunked, there is still sufficient evidence of potential harm from prolonged consumption. The benefits do not outweigh the risk.

Refined Oils

What are Refined Oils?

Refined oils are extracted from plants using either a chemical solvent or oil mill. Then they are often purified, refined, and sometimes chemically altered to achieve a uniform smell, taste and appearance. Refined vegetable-based oils include canola or rapeseed oil, soybean oil, canola oil, corn oil, sunflower oil, safflower oil, and peanut oil. Vegetable oil blends a variety of these oils

Why is it an Ingredient to Avoid?

Many refined oils become unstable when used in high heat cooking causing the oxidation of their polyunsaturated fatty acids. This has been linked to cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, and Parkinson’s disease.

Today’s western diet has caused an imbalance of our omega-6 and omega 3 consumption. The ideal ratio is 1:1, but current research shows that most people consume a 15:1 ratio with a very high intake of omega-6 fatty acids Refined oils such as vegetable oil, corn oil, safflower oil, soybean oil, and cottonseed oil contain higher levels of omega-6 fatty acids which have been linked to inflammation and other health issues. This guide will help you balance your omega-3 to omega-6 ration.

What Oils Should You Choose?

Choose oils that are made by crushing or pressing plants or seeds, rather than those produced using chemicals.

  • Cold-pressed olive oil is a great choice for dressings and adding flavor to foods in low heat cooking.
  • Avocado oil is perfect for roasting and sauteeing, but it also works well in baking and dressings due to its neutral flavor.
  • Remember to store oil in a cool dark place.

This cooking oil comparison breaks down the best oils for cooking, nutrition and health benefits.

Sodium Nitrates & Sodium Nitrite

Sodium Nitrate - top ingredient to avoid

What are Nitrates and Nitrites?

Sodium Nitrates & Sodium Nitrite are naturally occurring chemical compounds that contain nitrogen and oxygen. They are preservatives used in processed and cured meats to fight off bacteria, but they also occur naturally in vegetables because they obtain nitrates from the soil.

Why is it an Ingredient to Avoid?

Nitrates/Nitrites have potentially cancer-causing effects but, nitrates/nitrites themselves, especially those found in leafy greens and other vegetables have many health benefits.

Nitrates/Nitrites found in processed meats become carcinogenic because when combined with protein and high-heat cooking cancer-causing nitrosamines are also created.

Although we get 80% of our daily nitrate intake from vegetables, these nitrates are less likely to be harmful. Since vegetables contain very little protein and beneficial antioxidants, the nitrates in plants will not easily convert to nitrosamines. Learn more about nitrates in cured meats and plants here.

Nitrate Free and uncured deli meats also convert into cancer-causing nitrosamines These products use celery powder and other natural curing agents, but when combined with protein they pose the same risk.

How Can I Avoid Nitrates/Nitrites?

The best way to avoid the cancer-causing ingredients in processed meats is to avoid them altogether or limit how much you consume. A plant-based diet provides many health benefits including reducing your risk of heart disease, certain cancers, obesity, diabetes and cognitive decline. Click here to learn more about how to begin a plant-based diet.


What are Pesticides?

Pesticides are chemicals used to protect crops against insects, weeds, fungi and other pests.

Why is it an Ingredient to Avoid?

Pesticide exposure has been linked to cancer, effects on reproduction, immune or nervous systems and also increased risk of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.

Pesticides not only kill pests, but they also have grave effects on pollinators and wildlife!

What Can You Do?

When you can – buy organic. The Dirty Dozen List reveals the 12 fruits and vegetables that contain the highest concentrations of pesticides. Buying organic can be expensive, so focus on organic for the Dirty Dozen and buy conventional for other produce. EWG has a great Clean 15 list to help you choose which conventional produce is lower in pesticides.

Dirty Dozen – When to Buy Organic

  1. Strawberries
  2. Spinach
  3. Kale
  4. Nectarines
  5. Apples
  6. Grapes
  7. Peaches
  8. Cherries
  9. Pears
  10. Tomatoes
  11. Celery
  12. Potatoes

Brominated Vegetable Oil

Brominated Vegetable Oil in soda is an ingredient to avoid

What is Brominated Vegetable Oil?

Brominated Vegetable Oil is a plant-derived triglyceride used in citrus drinks to prevent the citrus oils, flavor additive and fragrance from separating. BVO was originally patented by chemical companies as a flame retardant.

Why is it an Ingredient to Avoid?

According to this article from Mayo the Clinic, brominated vegetable oil can irritate the skin and mucous membranes and longterm exposure can cause memory problems, headaches, as well as issues with coordination. Excessive consumption can lead to bromism.

BVO can still be found in Mountain Dew, Sundrop AMP Energy Drinks and many generic brands of citrus drinks. BVO is banned in Europe, so you won’t see the same ingredients in Mountain Dew overseas.

How Will I Remember What Ingredients to Avoid?

You might not remember all of the ingredients to avoid, but the key to making healthier choices at the grocery store is to choose less processed food. Remember, we don’t have to strive for perfection, but we can try our best to choose healthier options for our family. Indulge in food that you love in moderation and be a conscious consumer when shopping.

  • When you do have to buy packaged foods, look at the ingredient list and choose the package that has the fewest number of ingredients.
  • Learn to read the nutrition labels because processed foods can be higher in fat, salt, & sugar.
  • Whenever possible – choose organic.

My rule of thumb…

More Produce = Less Processed

For more information about ingredients to avoid head over to’s Known and Probable Human Carcinogen List that was recently revised in 2019.

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