They’re cheap, colorful, and preserve shelf life—it’s no wonder artificial ingredients are now in most processed foods. Every year, U.S. food manufacturers use 15 million pounds of synthetic dyes alone, even as scientific evidence increasingly links some additives to health issues such as allergies and certain cancers. “The body doesn’t recognize these chemically produced ingredients as simple foods, so it has to work harder, and that leads to irritation over time,” says Ashley Koff, RD, coauthor of Mom Energy (Hay House, 2011).

One way to avoid additives is to buy foods labeled USDA Organic (see “What’s Not in USDA Organic Foods"). Here are the top questionable ingredients—and healthier natural choices.

Synthetic food dyes (Red 40, Yellow 5, Yellow 6, Blue 2)

Synthesized from petroleum products, artificial food colors are in cereals, baked goods, and even salad dressings. Some clinical studies link them to hyperactivity in children.

In 2009, Britain insisted food makers take them out of foods marketed to kids. The U.K. version of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese, for instance, is now free of artificial growth hormones and colors.

Better alternatives: Vegetable (or no) coloring. Try mac and cheese that’s colored with annatto, derived from achiote seed. Vegetable-colored jelly beans (look in your bulk section, or try Surf Sweets) are better choices than, say, fake-color Skittles. Instead of blue yogurt tubes, offer kids plain or vanilla yogurt with granola, honey, or chocolate chips. And avoid rainbow-hued sports drinks; try uncolored coconut water instead.

7 tips for kicking artificial colors

Artificial sweeteners

Controversial synthetic sweeteners such as aspartame (Equal Classic, NutraSweet), acesulfame K, and sucralose (Splenda) don’t seem to work well for weight loss or diabetes prevention, the health issues for which they’re commonly marketed. In a recent study at the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, drinking diet sodas increased waist circumference in humans; a second study found aspartame raised blood sugar levels in diabetes-prone rats.

Better alternatives: Natural calorie-free sweeteners. The herbal extract stevia, or rebaudioside A, has a long history of safe use in foods. The sugar alcohol erythritol serves as the base of sweeteners like Swerve, which provides an easy 1:1 replacement for sugar. Xylitol is another good option—especially in gums and mints because it fights tooth decay—but it can upset tummies in large doses.

Genetically modified organisms

Introduced without labeling into the U.S. food system in the 1990s, GMOs are now in the vast majority of packaged foods. (Governments in Europe, Japan, and other countries mandated labels because of a lack of research on long-term safety.) GMO-food consumption is now considered a risk factor for allergies, autism, ADHD, and asthma, says Charles Benbrook, PhD, chief scientist at the nonprofit Organic Center.

If you see corn, soy, canola, cottonseed, or sugar (made from beets, not cane) on an ingredients label—and the product isn’t organic—you can assume it contains GMOs.

Better alternatives: Non-GMO Project verified and USDA Organic foods. Organic regulations prohibit GMO ingredients. Also look for the Non-GMO Project seal (see the Just Label It campaign), which means the food has met thresholds mandated in Europe.

What is not in USDA organic foods

  • Added trans fats
  • Artificial colors and dyes
  • Artificial flavorings
  • Artificial growth hormones and antibiotics
  • Brominated vegetable oil (BVO)
  • Chemical fertilizers
  • Chemical food additives (such as artificial sweeteners)
  • Genetically modified organisms (GMOs)
  • High-fructose corn syrup
  • Preservatives like sodium benzoate, sodium nitrite, and sodium nitrate
  • Toxic, persistent pesticides