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Do You Know What's in Your Favorite Fast Foods?

Updated: Aug 9, 2021

While we have all been told dozens of times how unhealthy fast food is, do you actually know why fast food is detrimental and how it affects your body?

In this blog, we will break down the most common ingredients in fast and other processed foods, and explain exactly how they negatively affect your body.

First, what makes food “processed” or “fast”?

The U.S. Department of Agriculture defines processed foods as one that has undergone any change to their natural state. This can include:

  • Washing

  • Cleaning

  • Milling

  • Cutting

  • Chopping

  • Heating

  • Pasteurizing

  • Cooking

  • Canning

  • Freezing

  • Drying

  • Dehydrating

  • Mixing

  • Packaging

Processed foods also include the addition of other substances like preservatives, flavors, nutrients, and other food additives like salt, sugar, and fat. If you look at processed foods through the technical definition, nearly every food we eat has been processed in one way or another. The problems with processed foods begin in forms of processing that remove or destroy nutrients. For example, peeling a fruit rids the nutrient-heavy skin, and drying or heating foods can destroy some vitamins and minerals.

Fast foods are often chemically processed, or “ultra-processed”. Such foods tend to be higher in sugar, refined carbohydrates, trans fats, and salt. They are a major contributor to the rise of obesity and illness throughout the world. These foods also account for 25-60% of a person’s daily energy intake throughout most of the world. This is extremely problematic, as chemically processed foods often contain only artificial substances and refined ingredients with many added chemical flavoring agents, colors, and sweeteners. This means they have very little nutritional value.

In a large study on over 100,000 participants, the researchers found that eating 10% more ultra-processed foods was associated with a >10% increase in developing coronary heart disease, cardiovascular disease, and cerebrovascular disorders. Another large study demonstrated that a daily diet with over 4 servings of processed foods was linked to an increased risk of all-cause mortality. For each additional serving of processed food, mortality increased by 18%.

The hidden ingredients in fast foods:

Did you know that the infamous Big Mac actually has 67 different ingredients? This is a drastic increase from the “two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun" that McDonald’s claims. The remaining 60 ingredients are in the form of additives used to make the food fresher for longer.

Researchers from How Stuff Works examined the menus from the five most popular fast-food chains and cross-matched their findings with the FDA’s list of common food additives and colors to find the 9 most common ingredients in fast food:

  1. Citric Acid = The most common preservative → Citric acid is found in many fruits and its high acidity makes it difficult for bacteria and mold to survive and reproduce. Luckily, citric acid is one of the few preservatives that very rarely cause detriments to health.

  2. High-Fructose Corn Syrup = The most common sweetener → High-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is very commonly used in fast food products because it’s just as sweet as sugar and much cheaper to process. Unfortunately, many researchers have pointed to a link between HFCS and obesity.

  3. Caramel Color = The most common color additive → You would be hard-pressed to find a fast food product that doesn’t contain some form of artificial color. While caramel color is the most common, other common coloring agents include Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6, and Red No. 40.

  4. Salt = The most common flavor or spice → This is probably the least surprising additive on the list. We know that fast-food restaurants rely on salt to increase the flavor of their meals, but did you know even milkshakes and sundaes contain salt? Moreover, many fast-food meals contain far over the recommended daily amount of salt.

  5. Monosodium Glutamate = The most common flavor enhancer → Monosodium Glutamate is more commonly known as MSG. Glutamate is actually an amino acid and one of the most important neurotransmitters in the brain. But consuming too much glutamate from your diet can potentially cause anxiety, depression, and other mood disorders.

  6. Niacin = The most common nutrient → In an effort to make up for the nutrients lost during processing, many fast-food chains will add extra nutrients to food. Niacin, or vitamin B3, is the most common. This nutrient is water-soluble, so your body needs a continuous supply in your diet.

  7. Soybean Oil = The most common oil or fat → Soybean oil is typically used in fast-food restaurants for deep-frying and as an ingredient in baked goods and non-dairy creamers. New research is beginning to find links between soybean oil and an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and neurological conditions like Alzheimer’s, anxiety, and depression.

  8. Monoglycerides and Diglycerides = The most common emulsifiers → Emulsifiers help to combine ingredients that typically don’t mix. You can think of emulsifiers like mustard in a vinaigrette recipe- it will prevent the oil and water from separating. Studies have linked emulsifier consumption to heightened blood sugar levels, weight gain, increased appetite, gastrointestinal inflammation, and insulin resistance.

  9. Xanthan Gum = The most common stabilizer or thickener → Xanthan gum is an ingestible polysaccharide derived from the Xanthomonas Campestris bacteria. This is the bacteria that causes black rot on leafy vegetables (appetizing, right?). If too much xanthan gum is ingested, it can cause gastrointestinal inflammation.

Effects of fast food on the body:

After reading through only the 9 most common of the dozens of substances commonly added to fast food, you may not be too surprised to learn that regular fast-food consumption comes with a laundry list of detrimental health effects.

Effects on Cardiovascular and Digestive Systems:

Most fast foods contain high amounts of carbohydrates and little to no fiber. All those carbohydrates are easily broken down by the digestive system and released into your blood as glucose. As a result, your blood sugar will increase. Frequent spikes in blood sugar can, over time, cause your insulin response to flounder. This increases your risk for type 2 diabetes, insulin resistance, and weight gain.

Fast foods also contain very high amounts of sugar. For example, a large Coke from McDonald’s contains 77 grams of sugar. The American Heart Association recommends no more than 24 grams of sugar for women and 36 grams for men per day. Even before accounting for the meal itself, the drink is already double your daily recommended dose of sugar. Too much sugar in your diet can lead to heightened blood pressure and chronic inflammation, both of which are precursors to heart disease.

Sodium is another very common ingredient in fast foods to increase flavor. But a diet too high in sodium can lead to bloating and water retention, which is why you may feel puffy and swollen after consuming fast food. For people with blood pressure conditions, a diet high in sodium can be dangerous. It can elevate blood pressure and increase stress on your heart and cardiovascular system.

Effects on Respiratory System:

Eating a diet heavy in fast foods can cause weight gain, this can set you on a path towards obesity. Your risk of respiratory problems like asthma and shortness of breath increase with obesity. Obesity can also put extra pressure on your heart and lungs and cause symptoms like difficulty breathing when walking or climbing stairs.

For children, especially though, the risk of respiratory problems is even higher. One study demonstrated that children who eat fast food three or more times per week are more likely to develop asthma.

Effects on Mental Health:

While you may not expect eating a diet high in fast foods to impact your mental health, the opposite is true. In fact, people who eat a common diet of fast food and processed baked goods are 51% more likely to develop depression than people who abstain from processed foods. A second study found that the greater the amount of sodium in urine (which reflects sodium intake), the more severe risk of depression for both men and women. Further, excessive fast food consumption is also linked to symptoms of anxiety.

Such effects on mental health are likely due to both fluctuations in blood sugar and gut imbalances or damage caused by chemically processed foods. The gut contains around 400 times more serotonin than the brain. This serotonin and dozens of other neurotransmitters are all produced in the gut. GI disturbances can cause production problems in the gut, which will then affect the availability of these neurotransmitters in the brain and can suppress the activity of the frontal cortex. When the brain is lacking vital neurotransmitters produced in the gut, mood disorders like anxiety can result. Proper digestive function allows our brains access to chemical signals that help us feel optimistic, motivated, and at ease.

Reversing the effects of fast food:

The only way to truly rid your body of the toxins and additives from fast food is through detoxification. Efficient detoxification depends on a series of seamless reactions that bind toxins to shuttle molecules and “escorts” them out through a series of doors. Dysfunction of the three-phase detoxification system is the most common and insidious root cause of toxic accumulation in the body. True health requires that all phases function in balance, or the whole system cannot work properly. With an increase in our daily exposure to toxins, it is imperative that our detox pathways are working at 100%.

Arguably the most important component of an efficient detoxification system in the molecule glutathione, also known as the “master” of the detoxification system. Without the presence of glutathione in the detoxification process, toxins like excess hormones, chemicals, environmental pollutants, heavy metals, and pharmaceuticals would have no way of leaving our bodies. A backup of such major toxins in the body can lead to liver damage and other illness and disease. This is why the depletion of glutathione in the human body is also linked to cancer, cardiovascular disease, and neurodegeneration. In the detoxification process, glutathione serves two main roles:

  • It binds to toxins and alerts the body that they are hazardous. In binding to toxins, glutathione will neutralize the positive charge and prevent toxins from attaching to important cellular components.

  • Next, glutathione transforms the hazardous toxins into a form that can be expelled or further metabolized. Specifically, glutathione converts the toxins into a water-soluble molecule that the body can easily expel.

Unfortunately, there are certain genetic variations within genes that will decrease the body’s ability to create glutathione and thus cripple the function of glutathione as an antioxidant and detoxifier. To read more about the genetic aspects of detoxification, click here.

For those with such genetic variations, it is integral that you not only avoid fast food and ultra-processed foods, but also take active steps to boost your glutathione supply through supplementation. If you don’t, the negative effects of fast food will cause more severe health problems.

At The Johnson Center, we recommend all of our patients follow a genomic-based nutritional plan. Through DNA testing, we can precisely identify the patterns and imbalances of your unique metabolism and use nutrients to suppress the expression of disease, illness, and other unhealthy patterns.

If you're interested in genomic testing, click here to learn more! Or contact our office at to schedule your complimentary 15-minute discovery call.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!


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