The Standard American Diet (appropriately abbreviated SAD) literally makes people sick. In fact, when people from other cultures adopt the SAD or a Western diet, they start to experience health issues in just a few short years. Why? Because the SAD is loaded with processed foods made with sugar, artificial ingredients and preservatives, all of which have been linked to cancer, heart disease, obesity, hormone imbalances and other health concerns.
These problems have been on the rise ever since we began moving away from growing our own food, eating what’s in season and carefully preserving what was needed to see us through the winter. Our grandparents’ grandparents preserved food by canning, smoking, drying, salting and pickling. Today? We preserve food with chemicals, and we’re slowly poisoning ourselves as a result.
One study found that nearly 60% of an average American’s daily calories come from “ultra-processed” foods — products that contain flavors, colors, sweeteners and other additives that you wouldn’t use at home. They often contain artificial preservatives, colorants, flavorings and texturants that are designed to trick the brain into craving and eating more of these nutritionally void foods.
Some of the most common chemical preservatives include:
- BHA/BHT — BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole) and BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) help prevent oils and fats from oxidizing, which can affect the taste, color and odor of food. They are commonly found in cereals, gum, snack foods, shortening and oils in the United States, but they have been banned many countries. BHA and BHT have been linked to cancer, sleep issues and behavioral problems, and they may disrupt endocrine function.
- MSG — MSG (monosodium glutamate) is a flavor enhancer, often listed under different names. It’s commonly used in Chinese food, but you can actually buy MSG in the spice aisle of your grocery store. MSG has a long history of causing adverse side effects such as headaches, flushing, sweating, facial pressure or tightness, numbness, heart palpitations, chest pain, nausea, weakness and more.
- Nitrates and Nitrites — These preservatives are often added to processed meats like bacon, ham, sausages and hot dogs to preserve taste and color. They are also found naturally in some vegetables and in our bodies. High levels of added nitrates can be converted to nitrites in the gut, which can cause anemia, hypotension, preeclampsia, birth defects, peripheral neuropathy and, potentially, cancer.
- Sodium Benzoate — Commonly used to preserve and enhance flavor in acidic foods, sodium benzoate is also found in medicine, dyes and household preparations. It has been proven to cause hives, asthma, rhinitis and even anaphylactic shock in some people. Clinical trials showed that it can cause DNA damage at the cellular level.
- Sorbates — These chemical preservatives, including sorbic acid and potassium sorbate, are used for food, some personal care products and some pharmaceuticals. You can find them in wine, cheese, baked goods and canned goods, as well as in some fresh meats and produce. Sorbates have been linked to hives, asthma, migraine headaches, nasal congestion and abdominal pain. Calcium sorbate is now banned in Europe due to a lack of safety data.
- Sulphites — This group of chemicals is used to preserve color in foods like cut potatoes, dried fruits and dried vegetables, and in soft drinks, beer and wine. The FDA restricted their use in 1986 after they were linked to hives, hypotension, abdominal pain, diarrhea, asthma, headaches and allergies, but plenty of foods still contain them.
Does this list scare you? If not, it should. Our bodies weren’t designed to eat artificial ingredients and lab-created foods. We were meant to eat real food — the kind without labels at the grocery store. If you do choose to eat lightly processed foods, such as those allowed on the SHAPE program, read labels carefully. Your Program Guidebook provides clear guidelines on what to eat and what to avoid.
When in doubt, leave it out!