When it comes to having a healthy relationship with food and eating, it’s important to realize that there are no overarching “good” foods or “bad” foods, and restrictive and deprivation-driven mindsets toward food are never ideal. However, there are some ingredients that have been shown to cause health issues, and because of a woman’s unique and complex biological makeup, some should be of even greater concern for women than men.
Often focusing on foods you should eat vs. what you shouldn’t eat is considered a more positive approach toward health. “To include more nutritious foods into everyday patterns, shift the way you prepare the foods you enjoy to make sure they’re as close to their intended state as possible,” says dietician Jaclyn London. “Think potatoes vs. potato chips; oranges vs. orange juice; whole-grains vs. refined white grains.” You can also take heed of our list of 50 foods you should be eating to take the best care of your body.
But since education is also key while you make those healthy eating choices, here are five toxic ingredients that you might not know are lurking in some common foods and that have been linked to health issues for women.
Bovine Growth Hormone—commonly referred to as rGBH—was used freely by dairy farmers to boost milk production for decades, and is linked to breast cancer in women. The toxic ingredient is banned in 17 countries, but the U.S. is not one of them. Many dairy manufacturers have stopped using the ingredient, but not all have. To avoid it, your best bet is to check your yogurt, cheese, and milk labels for an ‘rBGH free’ label. Note that manufacturers are not required to list rBGH on their product labels, but many brands choose to identify that they do not use any milk containing the harmful hormone.
“When we consume added sugar in excess of what we need over a period of time, the pancreas secretes the hormone insulin, which can result in a cluster of symptoms,” says London. Added sugar is known to be one of the leading contributors to obesity, and is a huge contributor to heart disease, which of course is the number one killer of women.
While added sugars in all our foods are a problem, London zeros in on the ones we drink as the most problematic. “Added sugars in beverage form provide no nutritive benefit—meaning they just provide calories, but don’t promote feelings of satiation. They are also the number one source of added sugar in the American diet,” she shares.
Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO)
BVO is used in sports drinks, sodas, and some cocktail mixers (primarily in citrus-flavored varieties) to prevent flavor separation, but the chemical is linked to a host of health problems, like increased risk of cancer, memory loss, and acne. It is also known to displace iodine, which can lead to iodine deficiency, which can in turn cause ovary and breast cancer in women.
Studies also show that BVO can build up in tissue over time, which can cause reproductive problems for women. Fortunately, in recent years, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have removed BVO from their drinks, but it can still be found in plenty of other drinks on grocery shelves.
This one isn’t an ingredient as much as it is a contaminant found in food, but we know that mercury can seriously impair the development of a fetus’s brain and nervous system, making it highly dangerous for women who are pregnant or nursing. However, since unplanned pregnancies regularly occur, the FDA actually recommends that all women of childbearing age avoid the four types of fish that contain the highest levels of mercury: swordfish, king mackerel, shark, and tilefish.
This one may be a surprise. Of course, you’d be hard-pressed not to know that parabens are a huge health risk to women, as they are known to change hormone function and are linked to fertility issues and risk of breast cancer. But while usually found in cosmetics, fewer of us are aware of parabens in food.
Just like they’re used as a preservative to prevent bacteria and mold in our beauty and personal care products, you’ll find them in food products for the same reasons. Parabens can be found in everything from coffee, juice, ice cream, bread, pizza, lunch meats, canned fruits, condiments, jellies, and sauces. Your best bet to avoid them? Read those labels and look for methyl-, ethyl-, propyl, and additives that have the letter ‘E’ and a number in the name (like E218 or E214).