Guide to Problematic Ingredients
What to watch out for in the foods you buy for keto
Many foods can “fit your macros” for keto, but only some contain the essential micronutrients your body needs to thrive. And most come with inflammatory ingredients that will interfere with your success. Sadly, hidden, harmful additives are ubiquitous in mass-produced foods today, even in popular keto-branded products. The Senza coaches put together this guide to help you avoid them at all costs.
- Chapter 1: Artificial Sweeteners
- Chapter 2: Added Fiber
- Chapter 3: Vegetable Oils
- Chapter 4: Everything Else
Chapter 1: Artificial Sweeteners
So-called non-nutritive sweeteners (NNS) or zero-calorie sweeteners have become big business in the food manufacturing industry, for the obvious reason that they contain few if any calories and carbs. Unfortunately, they can bring on sugar cravings and spike your insulin just the same as the real thing. Watch out for these five, especially:
Also known as AceK, this sweetener is 200 times sweeter than sugar, yet has no calories or carbs. It is considered artificial since it has been produced in a lab and is not derived from something found in nature. It has been found to contribute to arterial plaque accumulation, headaches, gut bacterial imbalances, and cognitive dysfunction. Watch out for this ingredient in diet sodas or liquid sugar-free products like sauces, marinades, and syrups. Learn more about AceK.
Marketed under the brand names NutraSweet and Equal, aspartame is twice as sweet as sugar. It’s made artificially and contains an amino acid phenylalanine, which can be toxic to individuals with a genetic disorder called PKU (phenylketonuria). Aspartame has been found to contribute to liver dysfunction, mood disorders, allergies, metabolism and even neurotoxicity. Avoid it in diet sodas, fruit juice, dressings, candy, ice cream, and energy bars.
This artificial sweetener became popular in the 1980s as a sugar substitute, making it one of the oldest NNS additives on the market. It’s about 500 times sweeter than sugar and free of any calories or carbohydrates. Saccharin is often added to beverages, jams, jellies, salad dressings, dessert toppings, cookies and even some medicines and toothpaste. Avoid putting packets of Sweet-n-Low in your coffee. This one has been linked to an increased risk in obesity, diabetes, renal failure and is a probable carcinogenic.
Branded as Splenda, sucralose is made from real sugar but is put through a chemical process that adds chlorine and modifies it to be around 600 times sweeter than real sugar, yet again without containing carbs or calories. Sucralose is used to sweeten yogurt, candy, baked goods, ice cream, and soda. It has relatively no aftertaste, which is often why it’s used in many products along with other artificial sweeteners that do have an aftertaste. Researchers have found that it can alter gut bacteria and interfere with healthy hormones and liver function.
Sweeteners like maltitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and erythritol are classified as sugar alcohols, and they are favored by the keto community because the body in theory does not digest them, and they generally do not count toward your NC tally for the day. However, not all sugar alcohols are created equal. Maltitol is the most problematic of the bunch. It gets marketed as a diabetic-friendly sweetener yet has almost the same glycemic effect on the body. It also has negative impact on the digestive system, causing loud digestive sounds, pain, gas, bloating, and even a laxative effect in some people. You’ll find it on labels for sugar-free or “no sugar added” products like gum, hard candies, ice cream, chocolate, and baked goods.
Better Alternative Sweetener Options
To combat cravings brought on by these and other artificial sweeteners, make sure to eat enough protein and fat to feel satiated, and always keep an eye on your electrolyte balance. As we’ve guided hundreds of thousands of people along the keto journey, we’ve discovered the best alternative sweeteners are stevia, monk fruit extract, and erythritol (if your digestive system can tolerate sugar alcohol). Note that stevia and monk fruit most often are found in powder form with erythritol, which is necessary to create a powder, but you can buy them in liquid form without the added sugar alcohol. We’ve created a Keto Sweetener Set for samples of these three products, so you can try before you buy them in larger quantities.
Did you know, certain warm spices can add a hint of sweetness naturally without any side effects at all? We love to prepare keto treats with pure vanilla or maple extract, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, and cloves, for example. And once your taste buds adjust to the absence of sugar, the tiniest amount of sweetness will add plenty of flavor. You can add a small drizzle of honey or maple syrup without having to pack it full of artificial ingredients.
Check out one of our all-time favorite recipes, created by a longtime Senza user: Microwave Chocolate Cake for One
This recipe doesn’t call for any artificial sweeteners, but rather a touch of honey at the end to introduce a bit of sweetness.
Chapter 2: Added Fiber
When companies pack their products full of cheap, added fiber, they are trying to offset the amount of NCs for the keto consumer, so they can market the item as low carb. (Remember, net carbs are calculated as Total Carbs – Fiber – Sugar Alcohol = Net Carbs.) Big Food brands are wise to this math and assume you are not aware of their tactics! When consumed in large amounts beyond what normally occurs in whole foods, added fibers like chicory root fiber, oat fiber, inulin, glucomannan, and psyllium husk wreak havoc on your gut. Pay attention to these three specific additives:
Soluble Corn Fiber
Made from corn starch, this fiber is used in baked goods to lend a sweet taste without the need for sugar. One of the main concerns with soluble corn fiber is that 90% of corn products used in the U.S. today come from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), which may contribute to digestive distress, hormone imbalance, DNA damage and more. This is a not-worth-it kind of risk in our book.
Modified Wheat Starch
Scan a few labels for products like frozen foods, baked goods, dressings, and sauces and you’re sure to come across this filler, which is included to help thicken, stabilize, or emulsify an industrial food product. Modified wheat starch can contribute to headaches, gas, bloating and digestive distress. Another concern is that products in the U.S derived from wheat are heavily contaminated with the pesticide, glyphosate, aka Roundup. Residual glyphosate consumed in food stays in the body and is connected to immune dysfunction, liver toxicity, hormone imbalance, and brain dysfunction. Learn more about modified wheat starch.
Soluble Vegetable Fiber
Indigestible cellulose comes from vegetables. You’ll find it added to bread and other products as a cheap filler ingredient that adds bulk without any nutritional benefits. Although we can’t digest fiber, our gut bacteria can, which is why excess fiber consumption results in gas, bloating, and gut pain. (Your gut bacteria ferment the fiber and give off gas as a byproduct.) Long-term consumption of fiber-heavy foods can lead to bacterial overgrowths, chronic constipation/diarrhea, and other digestive stress. Read more about how the role of dietary fiber is different from what we’ve been told, on Diagnosis Diet, the informative blog of Dr. Georgia Ede.
DIY Your Keto Treats
Since baked goods rely on the texture of flour, they are by definition heavy in carbs, so there aren’t a lot of alternatives that come without the addition of irritating fiber. Instead of relying on pre-made cookies, crackers, tortillas, and breads, the best option is to make your own at home! Check out the Senza Recipe Box for ways to bake with almond flour, coconut flour, mozzarella cheese, cacao powder, collagen, and other naturally low-carb ingredients. Your gut will thank you!
Read our post on Smart Food Swaps for more ideas from the Senza coaching team.
Chapter 3: Vegetable Oils
Did you grow up believing butter was bad and margarine was healthy? Yeah, us too. Unfortunately, this misguided information was exactly 180 degrees off from the truth. Extracted from industrial monocrops like corn, cotton, safflower, rapeseed, soy, and peanut, these industrially produced seed oils have been marketed for decades as “vegetable oil.” For manufacturers, these oils are far cheaper to use than animal fats or cold-pressed oils like olive, avocado, and coconut. But what do they do to your body? They create free radicals that bring about all kinds of health complications.
Canola is made by crushing rapeseeds. Although this sounds wholesome, the process of extracting it involves heavy machinery, high heat, chemicals, and solvents, some of which inevitably remain in the finished oil. By the time canola oil reaches the grocery store shelf, it is highly oxidized, often rancid, and unstable for cooking. Yet because of its mild flavor and aggressive marketing campaigns, canola is found in baked goods, chips, candy, dressings, sauces, dips, and even alternative milks and yogurt. Avoid this oil to prevent interference with healthy metabolism, hormone balance, brain function, and digestive system.
Most people don’t stock the pantry with soybean oil to cook at home, but it’s one of the most used oils in pre-made foods. Of course, it’s highly processed and also is extremely high in a particular type of fat called polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Due to their composition, these types of fats are highly sensitive to heat, light, and oxygen – meaning they become unstable quickly, creating free radicals in the body when you consume them. Watch out for this ingredient in commercial salad dressings, sauces, dips, mayos (including some that claim to be “made with olive oil”), marinades, cookies, crackers, and chips.
Remember the story of Crisco? Canola, soybean, and other seed oils can be hydrogenated, or chemically modified so that instead of liquid at room temperature, they become solid. This gives them a mouthfeel similar to saturated fats like butter or lard. These oils aren’t as common because of the rising awareness many people have about the dangers of trans fat, but they continue to be used in products like margarine, shortening, and “plant butter” alternatives. You will also find them in baked goods like breads, cookies and even nut butters.
Say No to Vegetable Oil
In general, do your best to avoid corn, cottonseed, grapeseed, sunflower, safflower, high-oleic sunflower, peanut, rice bran, and the generic term “vegetable” oils. All these industrial byproducts are now understood to interfere with healthy metabolism, cardiovascular health, brain function, energy, hormone balance, inflammation, and digestive systems. The half-life of these oils is more than 600 days, which means that once consumed, these substances stay in your body and become part of the fatty layer around your cells, making them extremely difficult to detoxify. They can wreak havoc on normal cell function and detoxification for even years after avoidance.
Avoiding vegetable oils can be an exercise in frustration. They are everywhere – from the supermarket hot bar to mainstream restaurant menus. Seek out places that make a point of cooking with coconut, palm, olive, beef tallow, lard, schmalz, butter, and ghee instead. The best strategy is to cook most of your meals from home, so you’re in control and can put only the highest quality fats into your healthy body.
Chapter 4: Everything Else
By now, you're getting the idea that the food industry adds chemicals to products as a way of enhancing flavor, creating texture, or extending shelf life – at a lower cost to the business and regardless of the toll on your overall health. Let's talk about a few more problematic ingredients to avoid:
Artificial Food Coloring
Fun fact: Any coloring not derived from a food source, comes from coal or tar. Yuck! These colors are listed on food labels as Blue 1, Blue 2, Red 3, Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6. These chemicals have well documented side effects, including hyperactivity, immune dysfunction, histamine imbalances, and allergies. Yet, they continue to be added to drinks, candy, sauces, mustard, frozen foods, ice cream, and more. Why?
Have you ever tried to find a brand of heavy cream that contains only cream and nothing else? It can be an impossible feat in mainstream supermarkets. Factory-farm dairies rely on carrageenan, xanthan gum, guar gum, gellan gum, polysorbate 80, and cellulose gum to thicken the product without having to use as much of the expensive good stuff. Heavy cream is naturally thick and doesn’t need these chemicals, which only serve to compromise the taste and texture, while irritating your digestive system. Do not support brands that insist on watering down even the simplest of products.
Nitrates & Nitrites
Nitrates/nitrites are preservatives used primarily in meats to help inhibit the growth of bacteria. They are found typically in bacon, sausage, hot dogs, ham, and other deli meats. They will appear on the label as "sodium nitrate" or "sodium nitrite." Uncured, high-quality meats should not contain added nitrates or nitrites. Many brands now use celery powder instead, which contains high levels of naturally occurring nitrates, and has come under some criticism in recent years. Some of the risks of nitrates include gene toxicity and potentially carcinogenicity. Steer clear.
This list is far from complete, and Big Food manufacturers inevitably will keep inventing new ways to cheat, as long as consumers continue to prefer convenience foods. With these problematic ingredients exposed, what’s a keto-minded person to do?
- Shop the produce aisle and stick to plain whole foods as much as humanly possible.
- Read ingredient lists diligently and only support brands that are not cutting corners.
- Search the Senza Recipe Box in our mobile app for keto and fasting to find DIY options for condiments, sauces, drinks, baked goods, and more.
- Ask a Senza coach for help making better food choices. We're here for you!
Content provided by Senza is not medical advice. It is intended for informational and educational purposes only.