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Reading the Ingredient Label: What to Look For

The ingredient list on package foods reveals some surprises.

Artificial Sweeteners, as in Sucralose, Saccharin, Aspartame, Acesulfame

In moderation, these ingredients can cut down on calories in foods like yogurt and beverages. But the Center for Science in the Public Interest warns that some artificial sweeteners can be dangerous in large quantities. Many nutritionists say it's best to consume artificial sweeteners in moderation.

"If you drink six cans of sugar-free soda a day, it might be wise to switch to sparkling water flavored with lemon and lime, for example," says Hark.

Sodium Nitrite and Sodium Nitrate in Food

Used as a preservative in meats, these chemicals may pose a cancer risk, although the evidence remains controversial. One recent study raised fears that nitrites and nitrates could interact with medications to damage DNA and increase the risk of cancer. The Center for Science in the Public Interest recommends limiting the amount you consume by choosing nitrite-free products when possible.

Artificial Colorings in Food

These additives don't add nutrient value, and some research suggests that some colorings may pose health dangers, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The risk is admittedly small, however, and the evidence often inconclusive.

Artificial colorings are often found in cereals, candies, sodas, and snack foods, especially those marketed to children. They will be noted on the ingredients list by their color name, such as Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Red 40, Red 3, Blue 1, Blue 2, Green 3, and Orange B.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG) in Food

Added to foods to enhance flavor, MSG has not been shown to pose a health risk, despite popular concerns about this additive. But some people do experience an unpleasant reaction, known as MSG symptom complex, which includes headache, flushing, sweating, fluttering heartbeat, and shortness of breath.

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Reviewed on October 20, 2008

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