Hidden health dangers of popular foods

Dietary trends in the United States are of great concern. According to the latest Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025, the typical American diet exceeds recommended levels of added sugars, refined grains, sodium, and saturated fat. To be fair, some of these ingredients may not be obvious to us unless we look carefully at food labels.  

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Some of your favorite foods may have unsavory ingredients in them that can be harmful to your health.

But here’s another fact: Food-borne pathogens affect one of six Americans, leading to 48 million illnesses, 128,000 hospitalizations, and 3,000 deaths annually.

Many health dangers lurk in the foods that we consume regularly. Although it’s nearly impossible to avoid all these foods, they should be consumed in moderation. Here are five examples.

The not-so-sweet truth 

For kids—and, let’s be honest, many adults—the characters and tropes on boxes of children’s cereal are hard to resist. Plus, children’s cereals are sweet, tasty, and convenient. 

It’s no coincidence these foods are so popular. In an observational study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers surveyed the parents of 624 preschool-aged children to find out which television shows and associated advertising their kids were watching. They found that these kids were regularly being exposed to “sugar bombs.”

“This naturalistic study demonstrates that child-directed high-sugar breakfast cereal TV advertising was prospectively associated with brand-specific high-sugar breakfast cereal intake among preschoolers,” they wrote. “Findings indicate that child-directed advertising influences begin earlier and last longer than previously demonstrated, highlighting limitations of current industry guidelines regarding the marketing of high-sugar foods to children under age 6 years.”

Notably, the intake of high levels of sugar leads to obesity, and serves as a risk factor for 13 cancers, noted a press release about the study. 

The lead author of the study, Jennifer Emond, PhD, of the Cancer Control research program at Dartmouth’s Norris Cotton Cancer Center, described the results.

“One factor believed to contribute to children’s poor quality diets is the marketing of nutritionally poor foods directly to children. Brands specifically target children in their advertising knowing that children will ask their parents for those products,” she said, adding, “Child-targeted marketing of foods high in sugar makes it hard for parents to shape healthy eating habits in our kids.”

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And that goes for adults who enjoy these cereals, too. 

Ultraprocessed foods

Chips, candy, and other ultraprocessed foods may look tempting in the checkout aisle, but do yourself a favor and pass. These options are unquestionably dangerous, according to the results of a systematic review published in Nutrition Journal.

The authors mined data from 20 epidemiology studies and found that high levels of ultraprocessed food consumption were linked to all-cause coronary heart disease, hypertension, all-cause mortality, overall cerebrovascular diseases, overweight/obesity, hypertension, metabolic syndrome, depression, irritable bowel syndrome, overall cancer, postmenopausal breast cancer, gestational obesity, adolescent asthma, and wheezing, and frailty.

The good(ish) news? Consuming a lot of these foods showed no significant association with cardiovascular disease mortality, prostate and colorectal cancers, gestational diabetes mellitus, and gestational overweight.

100% fruit juices

Even without sugar added, natural fruit juices are chock full of sugar, which is bad news. Whole fruit alternatives are better because they have fiber in the form of pulp and skin.

“The more concentrated sugar and calories in fruit juice can lead to obesity and inappropriate weight gain. Excessive weight gain is associated with high blood pressure, hypertension, stroke, diabetes and other negative health issues later in life,” according to UC Davis Health.

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Even more concerning, a recent study by Consumer Reports, found that nearly half of 45 fruit juices tested contained high levels of heavy metals, including cadmium, lead, mercury, and inorganic arsenic. Yikes!

Heavy metals are especially dangerous in children, where they can lead to lowered IQ, ADHD and other behavioral problems, cancer, type 2 diabetes, and more.

Refined grains

For many, the mention of freshly baked croissants, biscuits, and white bread brings to mind doughy goodness. But refined grains should be consumed only in moderation, as they pose health risks.

Refined grains are simple carbohydrates that have been stripped of fiber, bran, and nutrients. They have a high glycemic index and digest quickly, thus leading to spikes in blood sugar levels. They also lead to fat gain around the waistline and interfere with mood and energy.

Results from a large population-based prospective cohort study published in the BMJ indicated that higher consumption of refined grains, whole grains, and white rice predicted death and cardiac events.

“Our study from 21 countries showed that higher intake of refined grains was associated with higher risk of total mortality and major cardiovascular events,” the authors concluded. “We observed no significant association between intake of whole grains or white rice and clinical outcomes. Intakes of a combination of cereal grains with a lower intake of refined wheat products should be encouraged while promoting a higher intake of whole grains. Reduction in quantity and improvement in quality of carbohydrate is essential for better health outcomes.”

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Sushi

It’s true that many types of fish are healthy. But keep in mind that sushi is raw fish. It can harbor pathogens—most notably Listeria monocytogenes. Although rarely diagnosed, the infection listeria can lead to fever, muscle aches, headache, confusion, stiff neck, loss of balance, and convulsions. In pregnant women, it can cause miscarriage, stillbirth, premature delivery, and life-threatening infections to the newborn. Symptoms can manifest between the day of consumption and 70 days out, but usually appear within 1 and 4 weeks.

In a study published in Food Research International, Brazilian researchers found genetic evidence of L. monocytogenes derived from salmon sushi in two of seven sushi establishments sampled. Additionally, this bacteria formed hazardous biofilm on stainless steel that persisted.

“The presence of L. monocytogenes in RTE [ready-to-eat] sushi is a concern, demonstrating that sushi consumption may be a risk of human listeriosis,” the authors concluded. “Furthermore, it was possible to identify the persistence of this pathogen for at least one month (pulso types III and IV), in two establishments (A and G), highlighting the need for improving the cleaning and sanitation procedures in establishments that commercialize RTE sushi.”