Your cheat sheet to the riskiest ingredients in boxed and bagged foods, plus what risk they pose to your family's health.

Even the most well-intentioned parents have likely found themselves bagging up some packaged foods at the grocery checkout. Fruity yogurt, Cheddar crackers, juice boxes-they're among the most popular processed foods, and every parent who aspires to a mostly clean diet for their kids and family has struggled against their allure at least once or twice.

Many packaged foods market themselves as healthy, organic and even all-natural, but believe it or not, some of them still contain harmful ingredients. Instead of worrying about the food choice, help yourself know exactly what's on your kids' plates by reading labels and understanding the ingredients in these convenient (and sometimes necessary) options before you even leave the store.

Label literacy can help you pick better options and feel confident that on days or nights when you need the helping hand of a time-saving food, you're still making a smart choice for your family. Leave foods with any of these five ingredients on the shelf, and look for better options.

1. BPA and Pthalates

In addition to looking out for some riskier food ingredients, it's equally important to steer clear of harmful food packaging. Bisphenol A (BPA) and phthalates, chemicals commonly used in food and beverage packaging, contain unhealthy ingredients you should avoid whenever possible. The American Academy of Pediatrics recently called for stronger regulations around BPA and phthalates and advised parents to reduce their use.

BPA is used in the production of some plastic products to make them more sturdy and durable. It has has earned bad press for its harmful estrogen-mimicking effects, which may cause early puberty and lower sperm counts. BPA may even raise your risk of obesity, diabetes and some cancers. Even though a lot of manufacturers are omitting BPA from their packaging now, look for BPA-free labels when buying canned foods, water bottles and food-storage containers.

Similarly, phthalates are a group of chemicals that give some plastic packaging its flexibility. Like BPA, phthalates are endocrine disruptors and have been found to interfere with human hormones, potentially causing negative health outcomes like fertility issues, birth defects, behavioral problems in children and increased risk of diabetes.

Sneaky Sources: Thankfully, many manufacturers have changed the way they package their products to exclude these harmful chemicals. Still, do your best to ditch any food-storage containers, water bottles or canned foods that contain either BPA or pthalates.

2. Artificial Sweeteners

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved six high-intensity artificial sweeteners as safe for consumption-so long as they are consumed in moderation.

These FDA-approved artificial sweeteners are:

  • Acesulfame potassium (Ace-K)
  • Advantame
  • Aspartame (Nutrasweet, Equal)
  • Neotame (Newtame)
  • Saccharin
  • Sucralose (Splenda)

These high-intensity sweeteners offer the sweetness of sugar with few to no calories. That seems like a win-win option for parents who want to cut their kids' sugar consumption without stirring up a rebellion. However, many nutrition and health experts raise a serious eyebrow at them and their health claims, especially since children might not always limit themselves to the recommended "moderate" amounts.

"More and more studies are suggesting the potential harm of consuming artificial sweeteners," says Mitzi Dulan, R.D., author of The Pinterest Diet. "In general, it's best to have your child eat foods that are naturally sweetened instead."

Gut bacteria, which play a huge role in digestion and overall health, can potentially be affected negatively by artificial sweeteners. A small study in Israel suggested that a select few artificial sweeteners, including saccharine and aspartame, can damage gut bacteria, even destroy them. This could lead to an increased risk of type 2 diabetes as well as other health issues.

A more recent study, published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, observed an elderly group of European-Americans and Mexican-Americans for almost 10 years. Researchers found that people who drank more artificially sweetened diet sodas experienced higher rates of abdominal obesity (read: belly fat) compared to people who drank fewer of the no-sugar sodas.

While she typically dodges artificial sweeteners altogether, Dulan finds the sugar substitute stevia to be the safest option and best bet when it comes to incorporating artificial sweeteners into our daily diets. "I prefer stevia since it comes from a plant, but still caution the amount of products anyone consumes with stevia," she says.

Even if you think you're avoiding artificial sweeteners by not buying "lite" or "diet" products, some foods that advertise low added sugar still sneak in artificial sweeteners. The only way to be sure is to read the ingredient list carefully.

Sneaky Sources: Salad dressings that boast a low-fat label may have an artificial sugar among their ingredients. Ketchup can be another culprit of artificial sweetener intake, as some brands will try to cut back on their products' sugar levels by using sucralose instead. Sucralose is also a popular ingredient among a few whole-wheat bread brands.


3. Food Dye

In a perfect world, the food dyes added to our favorite cereals and snacks would come from all-natural sources like rainbow-colored fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately, an overwhelming amount of food products contain synthetic dyes to enhance their bright colors and make them more visually appealing, especially for children. Some of these man-made food dyes have been linked to behavioral issues and might even increase cancer risk.

For example, a study published in Science found that children with a higher hyperactivity level performed poorly on tests after consuming a food dye blend. And three of the most commonly used synthetic dyes-yellow 5, yellow 6 and red 40-contain compounds that have been linked to cancer.

Choose products that contain a natural dye or no added color at all. The best thing you can do is read each label closely. The label may not bluntly say "natural dye," but specific ingredient names may be easier to spot. These healthier food dye options, which get their coloring from sources like vegetables and minerals, include dehydrated beets, spinach powder and grape skin extract.

Sneaky Sources: Flavored applesauces can be tempting to try, especially flavors like strawberry and mango, but they all too often rely on artificial coloring for their unconventional look. Yogurt products can be guilty as well, especially when it isn't organic yogurt. Even some pickles have artificial dye.

strawberry smoothie

Pictured Recipe: Strawberry Smoothie

4. Fruit Juice Concentrate

Whole fruit has a lot of healthy benefits for kids, but highly processed juice products, including fruit juice concentrate, come with a bit more of a catch.

Because juicing removes the skin and most or all of the pulp from the fruit, it strips out fiber, vitamin C and other nutrients. And, manufacturers use fruit juice concentrate as a natural-sounding sweetener. It counts as an added sugar, even though it sounds better because of the word fruit. "Sugar is the master of disguise," says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RDN, author of Read It Before You Eat It. "It appears on food labels with names that are not always spelled as such."

According to the American Heart Association, children between the ages of two and 18 should eat or drink less than 6 teaspoons of added sugar each day, so it's best for parents to be extra leery when selecting products listing fruit juice concentrate, as they might contain more sugar than expected.

Sneaky Sources: Some granola bars-typically those that have a sweet, fruity flavor-depend on fruit juice concentrate for their sugary taste. Fruit juice concentrate also stars in many fruit-flavored cereals' ingredient lists.

Sweet Corn Ice Cream

Pictured Recipe: Sweet Corn Ice Cream

5. Carrageenan

If you have ever indulged your sweet tooth with some soft-serve ice cream or frozen yogurt, chances are you've had carrageenan. This emulsifier is also often added to processed foods, including nondairy milks, salad dressings and deli meats, to make their consistency thicker and more gel-like.

Although carrageenan is extracted from red seaweed and is an all-natural additive, it's raised a bit of speculation over the years. The ingredient has earned a bad reputation because some scientists and researchers believe stomach acid turns carrageenan into a toxin that causes stomach inflammation. That may lead to digestion problems and bowel issues.

The National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) voted to ban carrageenan in 2016, citing "perceived human health risks associated with the material" and noting that carrageenan does not meet the expectations of organic consumers. However, in 2018, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) overruled the NOSB and declared companies can continue to use the additive as an organic thickening agent in foods.

Taub-Dix's advice for parents who are leery of their child consuming a specific ingredient is simple: "When possible, find a comparable substitute that has a cleaner label, and one that is more nutritionally sound," she advises. "You have to feel comfortable with what you're feeding yourself and your children."

Sneaky Sources: Cottage cheese is great for veggie dipping or a high-protein snack, but many brands use carrageenan to give the curdy dairy product its familiar texture. Many store-bought sour creams rely on the ingredient for their thickness as well.