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The hidden dangers of ‘free-from’ foods

Reading time: 13 minutes

My father has type 2 diabetes. After he was diagnosed, he coped with the disease by seeking out snacks that still satisfied his sweet tooth. Because of the slick marketing, he came under the spell of ‘sugar-free’ snacks, such as sugar-free chocolates. They had no sugar, so they had to be safe, right? Isn’t this what diabetics are supposed to eat?

My father learned about the dangers of these ‘sugar-free’ foods the hard way. The diabetes had begun affecting his brain. He couldn’t think straight and lost control of his actions. These issues were caused by the fact that his blood sugar was wildly out of control, having clocked in at more than 300 for months. (Normal is around 98.)

Then I looked at the nutrition labels. Those special milkshakes for diabetics might be sugar-free, but they were chock full of man-made chemicals that had no business being marketed to ill people trying to get well. Their very long ingredients list reads like a greatest hits of additives to avoid: there’s tons of cellulose (which can disrupt our gut bacteria and cause inflammation), genetically modified organism (GMO)-derived soy fiber, GMO soy protein, fructose, GMO corn maltodextrin and so on. It’s a food made up entirely of chemicals you’d never eat on their own, or even find on a grocery store shelf.

Even though he wasn’t eating ‘sugar,’ after my dad visited his endocrinologist it became clear that his ‘diabetic food’ was nothing more than simple carbohydrates and sugar alcohols, which could also increase his blood sugar.1 In short, the ‘sugar-free’ foods were really dangerous, especially because they encourage people to consume way too many of them. The labels were selling a lie.

The good news is that after my dad stopped consuming these shakes and other processed diabetic food, his blood sugar stabilized, and his brain started to function normally again. The dementia wasn’t permanent; as the ‘sugar-free’ foods cleared his system, he became himself again.

The sugar-free label

In order to understand why the ‘free-from’ food fallacy is so dangerous, it’s necessary to delve into the details of why being free from sugar, fat or other ingredients doesn’t make a food healthy – and in fact, may do the opposite.

Many sugar-free products are often just free of table sugar (sucrose), but may be laced with sugar alcohols or artificial sweeteners instead, including acesulfame potassium (Equal), saccharin (Sweet’N Low), aspartame (NutraSweet, Equal) and sucralose (Splenda). And many sugar-free foods don’t really save you calories, if that’s your goal. Sugar-free brownies are a good example. A serving of regular American-brand Pillsbury chocolate brownies weighs in at 110 calories, while their sugar-free brownies have 90 calories. Not really much of a difference!

Sometimes sugar-free foods contain chemically modified sugars. An example is maltodextrin, created from corn. (This is also found in those Pillsbury sugar-free brownies.) It’s manipulated in a lab, where it’s broken down with enzymes to make it easier to digest.

The easy digestibility of maltodextrin is where the problem lies. It is digested as quickly as pure sugar, which means that it can spike insulin levels in a similar way to sugar.2

Sugar-free foods often contain sugar alcohols. These additives can raise blood sugar levels too, just like they did in my father. A spike in blood sugar levels leads to a quick drop in blood sugar, which makes you crave even more carbs. It’s a terrible hangover effect that leads many people to binge on these fake healthy snacks. In some people, sugar alcohols can also produce a laxative effect.

They also train our taste buds to expect excessively sweet foods. I’ve found that ‘sugar-free’ treats sweetened with sugar alcohols taste even sweeter than their real sugar-sweetened counterparts, which creates a dangerous cycle of constant cravings.

The fat-free label

If you don’t eat fat, you can’t get fat, right? Wrong. Foods that carry the ‘fat-free’ label trick you into believing that if you cut dietary fat out of your diet, your body fat will soon disappear, too. Not true. The science shows that this rarely works.

The main reason is that when fat is removed from food, it is replaced with carbohydrates (often refined sugar) or proteins processed in various ways with water or air to taste more like fat – all bad for the waistline.

Low-fat diets have been shown to be ineffective at producing lasting weight loss. Even if dining on fat-free yogurt helps you shed a few pounds, the evidence shows that you’re not really doing your body much good. An extensive 2015 scientific review by researchers at Harvard Medical School found that low-fat diets weren’t any more effective than other types of diets that allow more fat.3

Cutting fat grams simply doesn’t coincide with less fat on your body. This is likely because low-fat and fat-free foods are typically full of refined sugar. Low-fat and fat-free yogurts, for instance, tend to be laden with more sugar than a scoop of ice cream.

Consider the “reduced fat” peanut butter made by Jif, part of the J M Smucker Company. Peanut butter should really be just 100 percent ground peanuts, but Jif claims their reduced-fat version is just 60 percent peanuts. What makes up the remaining 40 percent of the jar? Ingredients like corn syrup solids, sugar, pea protein, and fully hydrogenated oils.

We shouldn’t be afraid of the healthy fats in peanuts (and other natural foods like avocados, walnuts and chia seeds). The Big Food industry has made us scared, supporting decades of misleading research, which has led people to seek out fat-free or low-fat foods.

The end result is a dismal cycle: we buy these reduced-fat foods, which leave us less satisfied, which means we have to scarf down bigger servings and more sugar. It shouldn’t be too surprising, then, that these fat-free options make us even fatter.

The trans fat-free label

You may have heard in the news that the FDA finally banned “partially hydrogenated oils” from our food, a main source of trans fat. This is a step in the right direction – although a long time coming – because eating artificial trans fat is strongly correlated with an increased risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease, and has been shown to lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol levels. The US National Academies of Science Institute of Medicine emphasizes that artificial trans fats have no known health benefit and there is no safe level to eat.4

Although the FDA banned partially hydrogenated oils, they didn’t address the other artificial additives in our food that also contain these heart-wrecking artificial trans fats. Some refined oils, emulsifiers, flavors and colors contain trace amounts of trans fat, but they don’t need to be labeled as such.

In fact, a very common emulsifier in processed food is one of these hidden sources of trans fat: ‘mono- and diglycerides of fatty acids,’ or ‘monoglycerides’ and ‘diglycerides.’ This additive helps keep oil and fat from separating, especially in processed foods.

Unfortunately, these mono- and diglycerides are quickly converted by the body back into triglycerides, which are associated with heart disease. Even though mono- and diglycerides may contain trans fat, they aren’t required to be labeled as trans fats on food packages because they are classified as emulsifiers, and can even be in food labeled “no trans fat.”

The food industry has really exploited this loophole, adding mono- and diglycerides to many foods that are labeled “no trans fat” or “0 grams of trans fat,” such as Crisco vegetable shortening and vegetable oil-based buttery spreads like I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter (now called I Can’t Believe It’s So Good), light version. If you eat a lot of processed foods, monoglycerides and diglycerides are nearly impossible to avoid.

McDonald’s uses the ingredient in its buns, shakes, ice cream and biscuits, as does Burger King in its croissants, specialty buns, frappes and cookies. Why do most fast food restaurants use mono- and diglycerides? For the same reason processed food companies do: because it’s cheap, it makes food last longer and they can get away with it.

The gluten-free label

Gluten-free product sales have increased dramatically in recent years, raking in billions of dollars. Gluten affects some people adversely, notably those with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that afflicts approximately 1 percent of the population.5 In people with this disease, the body treats gluten as a poison.

Some people have less severe gluten allergies or sensitivities – maybe 7 or 8 percent of the US population. Even so, about 30 percent of adults in the US are either trying to avoid gluten or ease back on it, says the marketing firm NPD Group.6

There are three common pitfalls of a gluten-free diet, unless you have celiac disease or a diagnosed intolerance to gluten:

Gluten-free doesn’t mean guilt-free. There’s simply no proof that eliminating gluten from your diet will help you lose weight. When someone without celiac disease loses weight after ditching gluten, it’s likely because they stopped eating all those processed foods they used to eat (refined breads, pastas, crackers). These foods happen to be loaded with gluten, but that doesn’t make gluten the culprit.

If you get a little thinner on a gluten-free diet, it’s most likely because you’re cutting back on many fattening and processed high-calorie foods such as fried foods, pizza, packaged snacks and breads. But many gluten-free products can be higher in calories than gluten-containing foods. This occurs when food manufacturers replace the missing gluten with extra fat and sugar.

Gluten-free can have extra additives. The gluten-free fad has given rise to an entire industry of gluten-free convenience foods that contain questionable additives and preservatives, refined sugar and nutrient-empty ingredients. For instance, in gluten-free products you might find yourself eating:

Tapioca starch. One of the main ingredients used to replace wheat flour, this starch is very high in carbohydrates but hardly contains any fiber, fat, protein, vitamins or minerals, and basically just supplies empty calories that can spike blood sugar higher and faster than refined sugar.

Rice starch, rice flour and brown rice syrup. Rice is very common in gluten-free diets, but it’s notoriously contaminated with arsenic. Arsenic is classified as a group 1 carcinogen by the International Agency for Research on Cancer.7 In 2012, Consumer Reports tested more than 200 products and found significant levels of arsenic in several brands of rice (especially brown rice), rice pasta, rice flours, rice cereals, rice crackers, brown rice syrup and rice cakes. This can be a problem for people on gluten-free diets because rice is found in so many gluten-free foods.8 Corn and soy. Corn and soy ingredients (corn meal, corn starch, corn syrup, soybean oil and soy lecithin) are found in many gluten-free pastas, crackers and cookies. When you see anything made from conventional corn or soy on a label, it’s a pretty safe bet that it’s a GMO if you live in the US, because the vast majority of these crops are. These crops are also sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate, which has been shown to accumulate in the crops and has been deemed a “probable carcinogen” by the World Health Organization.9 It is also believed to destroy healthy gut bacteria.10

Added sugar. Gluten-free foods use sugar to replace the flavors lost when grains are removed. It’s virtually impossible to find a gluten-free product without added refined sugar. In fact, you’ll often see sugar listed several times on the gluten-free ingredients list in its many different forms: corn syrup, maltodextrin, dextrin, sugar and so forth. And unless the ingredient label specifies cane sugar, in the US it is likely sugar from GMO sugar beets. Xanthan gum. When the gluten is removed from baked goods, food companies often add the additive xanthan gum for texture and softness. Be aware that in the US it’s often derived from GMO corn and can trigger allergies or gastrointestinal issues in susceptible people.

The natural label

The notion that the added flavors in our food are ‘natural’ is a lie. The very term ‘flavors’ on a package is highly misleading. It sounds innocent and is on so many products that we are desensitized to it. Flavor companies own these proprietary formulas, making it nearly impossible to find out exactly what’s in them.

The FDA doesn’t require companies to tell you what is in the flavors they use. It’s a complete mystery ingredient. You’d like to think that “natural apple flavor” is just some juice extracted from an apple and inserted into the food. But that “natural apple flavor” needs to be preserved and stabilized and has agents added to help it mix well into a product.

This is why flavors can contain upward of 100 different chemicals, like propylene glycol, polysorbate 80, BHT (butylated hydroxytoluene) and BHA (butylated hydroxyanisole), all considered ‘incidental additives’ not required to be labeled by the FDA.11

Flavored water manufacturer LaCroix was hit with a lawsuit because their drinks – which boast they only contain “natural flavors from non-GMO plants” – tested positive for propylene glycol, an artificial solvent frequently used by the flavoring industry.

Natural flavor can also legally contain naturally occurring glutamate, an additive that mimics MSG, a known excitotoxin. Excitotoxins can have far-reaching and damaging effects on the body. They infiltrate the bloodstream and can overexcite cells throughout the nervous system. Worst of all, excitotoxins also make food irresistible to eat and can thus contribute to obesity.

Then there are the “yuck factor” natural flavorings, such as castoreum, a substance used to augment some strawberry and vanilla flavorings. It comes from beavers – specifically, from sacs right next to their anus – which they use to mark territory.

In the US, so-called “natural” flavorings can also be laced with GMO-derived ingredients (unless the food is organic or non-GMO project verified). There is absolutely no health benefit provided by these ‘natural’ flavors – they are not adding any extra nutritional value to your food. Most of the time, they are simply there to cover up the highly processed nature of what you’re eating.

There is no governmental or independent agency that approves or oversees the safety of food flavors. Instead, a flavor industry trade group, the Flavor and Extract Manufacturers Association (FEMA), has assembled their own panel of scientists who review and approve new flavors as Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS). These scientists are paid by FEMA (which ultimately gets its funding from flavor companies).12

These chemical flavors can save the companies a huge amount of money. I was recently in a supermarket and came across some blueberry English muffins. Sounds fairly healthy, right? But here’s the catch: the muffins contained no actual blueberries. Instead, the ingredients listed something called “blueberry flavored bits,” which were made of sugar, wheat flour, natural and artificial flavors, Blue #2, and Red #40. Sugar and blue dye, I guess, are cheaper than real berries.

Similarly, Dannon Oikos Triple Zero strawberry yogurt contains zero strawberries. They trick you into thinking otherwise by adding some vegetable juice concentrate for red color and “natural flavors.”

Or consider vanilla. If you see vanilla flavor in a mass-produced product, chances are it’s just a ‘natural flavor’ and not the real thing. Why? Because the real thing is expensive: a pound of pure vanillin (from vanilla beans) costs $1,200. Big Food, however, can create that same flavor for about $6 a pound, which is why so many products, from those yogurts to baked goods, rely instead on this fake flavor.

Flip it over to find the real packaging

I can’t count how many times I’ve been shopping and found a product with a marketing claim on the front of the package that was so misleading it was hardly true. Here are a few egregious examples:

Sargento Shredded CheeseWith the claim “Off the Block” blazoned on the front of the bag, the manufacturer is insinuating this cheese is like the kind you’d shred “off the block” of cheese at home. But the ingredients list shows that it contains powdered cellulose, an additive made from wood and used as a coating on most pre-shredded cheese to keep it from sticking together. Eating cellulose is linked to weight gain, inflammation and digestive problems.

Wishbone EVOO Salad DressingsRight there in the product name you see that this dressing is full of healthy extra virgin olive oil, right? Well, not exactly. Right after olive oil, you’ll find soybean oil listed on the ingredients list. This is closely followed by added sugar. Soybean oil is chemically refined, typically from GMO soybeans, and has an abundance of omega-6 fatty acids that increase the risk of inflammation, cardiovascular disease, cancer and autoimmune diseases.

RXBARsThe front of these healthy-looking bars lists their simple ingredients: “3 egg whites, 6 almonds, 4 cashews, 2 dates, no B.S.” What they don’t tell you on the front, however, is that they also add natural flavors to their bars. You’ll only find this disclosed when you read the real ingredients list on the back of the package.

Canada Dry Ginger Ale – Until recently, Canada Dry Ginger Ale claimed it was “Made from Real Ginger.” Yet the ingredients list doesn’t have ginger anywhere to be found. After several lawsuits claiming false advertising, Canada Dry has changed the packaging, but only for the American market. Always read the ingredients list. That’s where you’ll find the real truth.

Action steps: go gluten-free the right way

If you have celiac or feel better on a gluten-free diet, instead of buying gluten-free breads and crackers filled with additives and sugar, fill your diet with healthy whole foods that are naturally gluten-free (vegetables, fruits, beans, seeds, lentils, nuts) to nourish your body.

Get to know ancient grains. Cultivated for thousands of years, ancient grains represent some of the oldest grains consumed by humans. They include quinoa, amaranth, millet, teff and sorghum. Many are gluten-free and packed with vitamins, minerals, fiber and protein. These delicious grains also offer tremendous benefits, such as preventing cancer, heart disease and high blood pressure.

Choose pastas that are made from lentils or beans, or make your own “noodles” out of spaghetti squash or zucchini using a spiralizer.

Substitute quinoa for rice when making stir-fries and other dishes that are typically served over rice. This will help minimize your exposure to arsenic.

Use healthy flours rich in nutrients for baking recipes, such as almond meal or flours made from coconut, buckwheat, quinoa, chickpea, teff or sorghum. Sometimes these are mixed with a bit of tapioca flour for texture; just make sure you are using nutritious flours as well. If you can’t bake your own bread, seek out store-bought breads that are made primarily from nutrient-rich ancient grains or buckwheat (and rely less on rice or tapioca flours).

Eat more produce. Fruit, veggies, beans and salad greens are all naturally gluten-free. Don’t be afraid to try new ones until you find your favorites, and try creative ways to incorporate them into meals. For example:

• Instead of using a gluten-free tortilla, make a wrap out of collard greens, romaine lettuce or swiss chard leaves. The individual leaves can be blanched to take on the texture of a tortilla, and they are so much healthier.

• Make your pizza crusts from cauliflower. Cauliflower blends with goat cheese and eggs into a great dough for pizza that’s packed with nutrients. Cauliflower can also be blended in a food processor into ‘rice’ that you just sauté for a few minutes to make the perfect rice substitute.

Snack naturally. Choose snacks made with organic seeds, nuts and dried fruit.

Excerpted from Feeding You Lies, by Vani Hari (Hay House, 2019)



New York Times, July 19, 2010; J Am Diet Assoc, 2004;104: 255-75


Diabetics Weekly, June 29, 2017


Lancet Diabetes Endocrinol, 2015; 3: 968-79


US Food and Drug Administration, Final Determination Regarding Partially Hydrogenated Oils (Removing Trans Fat). May 15, 2018.


US NIH, Genetics Home Reference. Celiac Disease. Jan 8, 2019


NPD Group, Dieting Monitor. Press release, March 6, 2013.


International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC Monographs, volume 100C


Consumer Reports, November 2012


International Agency for Research on Cancer, IARC Monographs, volume 112


Environ Health. 2018; 17: 50


Environmental Working Group. Natural vs. Artificial Flavors


Time, June 9, 2015

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Article Topics: Flavor, sugar
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