Bloomington / Normal, IL

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Is Your Food Wearing a Mask?


Submitted by Mary Kay Holloway RDN, Oncology Dietitian at Carle Cancer Institute

Food today is filled with so many additives, sugars, sodium, and trans fats it can be difficult to determine what we are eating. And these ingredients are often disguised by different names. Therefore, it is extremely important to read the food labels and unmask the alter egos of ingredients that can sabotage our health and increase the risk of developing cancer. Studies show that about 50 percent of people frequently check labels to determine what is in the food they buy. Make sure you are part of that 50 percent who not only read the labels but understand what they mean.

Sugar is one the biggest food villains because it goes by many different names including corn syrup, agave nectar, barley malt syrup, and dehydrated cane juice, to name a few. The reason we want to limit or avoid these sugars is they can cause insulin resistance, type II diabetes, obesity, gum disease, and heart disease. Sodium’s alter egos include salt, sodium benzoate, disodium or monosodium glutamate (MSG), and sodium nitrate. High levels of sodium can lead to high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, osteoporosis, fluid retention, and bloating. To avoid trans fats, avoid labels that say hydrogenated oil. Trans fats are linked to heart disease, increased cholesterol, increased triglycerides, inflammation, clotting, and insulin resistance.

Other masked villains to be aware of include natural flavorings, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, bisphenol A (BPA) and flavor packs, which are chemically altered flavors added back into things like orange juice. Artificial sweeteners are masked by words such as aspartame, sucralose, acesulfame potassium, and saccharin. Artificial sweeteners have been linked to type II diabetes as well as obesity. When you read the ingredients on a product, avoid foods that contain colors and numbers so look for ingredients like red 40, or yellow 6, which are additives used to artificially color foods. Avoiding flavor packs can be tricky. Since orange juice can say “100 percent pure and natural” while still containing flavor packs, it can be difficult to choose the right product. Choosing fresh squeezed or unpasteurized orange juice is the best way to avoid these flavor packs. To avoid BPA, drink from only glass or stainless steel cups.

You may be asking yourself why all these additives are allowed in my food. The FDA has recognized these additives as GRAS, or generally recognized as safe. It is up to the consumer to decide whether or not they want to consume these additives by carefully checking labels. Before all of the additives were created we simply ate food and didn’t really need to worry about it. If you eat truly natural foods such as organic fruits and vegetables, then you can be sure to avoid any additives.

Today’s food is often so processed that we have to see behind the masks of the ingredients to understand what we are eating. The ingredients are listed in order of quantity. The first ingredient listed is the most abundant within the product. My advice is to look at the ingredients on your favorite beverage or food and ask yourself:  what am I really drinking or eating? Take pride in your health, be aware of labels, and unmask your food.

The Carle Cancer Institute Normal, located at 407 Vernon Ave., offers a variety of supportive and educational groups and programs, free of charge, to help patients and families cope with cancer and its effects. For more information go to their website at