In this day and age we, as consumers, need to be a lot more conscious of what we put in our mouths. We are living in an age of new scientific discovery, where scientists are regularly updating the public on what is healthy. At the same time a lot of myths are being debunked, and many widely believed notions are being challenged. To make matters worse, nearly everything outside of organic stores is genetically modified and packed with mystery hormones and chemicals.
Aside from GMO’s, there are a lot of other popular foods that we need to avoid in order to maximize our health. From packaged snacks for the busy, on-the-go mom, to powdered nutrients targeted to the “fit” consumer, there is a lot out there that can do more harm than good. Take a look at your average American for example, it’s tough to be impressed when the national obesity rate is 35%, and nearly 3 in 4 men are at considered to be at least overweight.
If getting that summer body isn’t enough of a motivation, consider your health as a whole. These convenient, and readily available, meals are often times packed with potentially dangerous chemicals in order to maximize their shelf life. This article sets out to point out 25 of the worst offenders, so that you can rid your pantry of these dangerous (yet common) foods and take a step towards a more healthy lifestyle.
#25 – Microwave Popcorn
Popcorn has paved its way into our hearts as a “must have” when it comes to movie night snacks. It makes sense, it’s cheap, it’s tasty, and requires virtually no preparation. Popcorn has become so popular, in fact, that Americans consume about 17 billion quarts of it every year. While popped corn itself is not an unhealthy food, your 3-min microwaveable pack likely is.
You’re probably thinking– why is microwavable popcorn unhealthy? Well, for a number of reasons. For starters, the corn itself is usually GMO (we’ll discuss this a little bit later), and the bags that it comes in are usually lined with perfluorochemicals (PFCs), which are toxic. These chemicals often contaminate the popcorn inside the bag and saturate it, making it a poor choice of snack.
If that’s not enough to deter you, then consider the fact that popcorn flavorings themselves often times contain toxic ingredients, too. If you’re itching for that “cheddar” popcorn flavour, don’t be fooled into thinking that you’re actually getting any cheese – you’re not. For buttery flavors, the taste usually comes from a compound called diacetyl, which has been linked to a number of health conditions. So next time movie night rolls around, grab some kernels and pop them the old-fashioned way – on the stovetop (and skip the artificial flavoring).
#24 – Reduced Fat Foods
In the rise of fad diets, a very strong stigma has been built around fat. The new “health” revolution has demonized it, and manufacturers began selling “reduced fat” and even “fat-free” options of their usual offering. What most people don’t realize is that “fat-free” version of their favorite snack is usually much more unhealthy than the full-fat original.
In order to maintain the flavor of their fat-free goods, manufacturers began adding a lot of salt, sugar, and artificial flavoring to maintain their customers. Interestingly enough, calorie counts in low-fat foods remained largely the same, and sometimes even increased. Ironically, many people that were consuming these “fat-free” foods were doing it with the intention of losing weight, but many have ended up putting some on instead.
To maintain the texture of their products, a fat substitute is added in place of the natural fats used previously. Unfortunately, artificial fats do a lot more harm than good. For example, many of them will prevent the absorption of essential nutrients, rendering the “fake fat” essentially useless when it comes to nutritional value. So next time you reach for a reduced fat alternative at the supermarket, think twice about the health detriments to follow.
#23 – Diet Soda
At this point everybody knows that soda is virtually sugar water, so when diet pop became a thing everyone lost their mind. Clever marketing behind these zero calorie beverages has fooled a large part of the population into thinking that it’s a healthy alternative. Sure, diet soda might be slightly better for your overall health than the regular, full-calorie drink, but by no definition of the word is it “healthy.”
To make diet soda taste passable without any sugar, manufacturers have to pack them tightly with artificial sweeteners and artificial colors. Interestingly enough, a recent Purdue University study came out with findings stating that artificial sweeteners ironically lead to weight gain. When you drink diet soda (anything else chemically sweetened) your body thinks that you’re consuming actual nutrients and pumps out insulin to regulate the intake. Since you’re not actually getting anything of nutritional value out of your diet soda, the insulin is then stored as fat.
For those of you that don’t find some extra fat a consequence severe enough, consider some of the other risks. A number of studies have linked regular diet soda consumption with kidney damage, and an increase in the risk of tooth enamel damage.
#22 – Kids Cereal
It’s no secret that kids adore sugar, and by now companies have figured out how to easily market it to them (well, to their parents). When your kids fill their bowl with any of the popular cereals they might as well drink a can of soda every morning instead. While Cap’n Crunch and Froot Loops might sound cute, their nutritional content certainly isn’t. Although you can find all of the nutritional information on the box, these brands try very hard to focus your attention on something else instead.
For example, if you grab a box of your kids favorite cereal right now you will notice the misleading claim of it being part of a balanced breakfast due to the high content of vitamins and minerals. Sure, vitamins and minerals are important, but there are many better ways of getting them into your system. As far as sugar goes, a lot of the most recognizable brands include about 10 grams of sugar per serving, which is quite close to the recommended daily maximum (12g) for children.
Now, just because your favorite cereal isn’t Cheerios, it doesn’t mean that you’re safe. In fact, many granola cereals (such as Raisin Bran) contain even more sugar than their seemingly “unhealthy” alternatives. That being said, not all cereal is “off-limits,” so before you hit your grocery store for your next box make sure to read the label first.
#21 – Non-Dairy Coffee Creamer
There’s nothing wrong with starting your day with a hot cup of coffee, just make sure to do it right. In this fast-paced world of ours, many people like to speed things along by adding a couple of those tiny creamers into their coffee and be on their way. Ironically enough, those people usually believe that their non-dairy creamer is healthier than real cream – think again. In fact, calling non-dairy creamer a “cream” is a stretch.
In reality, these creamers are nothing more than a cocktail of chemicals, oils, sugar, and milk products. Non-dairy creamer is also flammable, due to the sodium aluminosilicate, an ingredient that is added to keep the powder from sticking together. It should go without saying, but dietary additives that are easily flammable should probably be avoided. Sodium aluminosilicate has also been linked with toxicity, liver disease, and renal failure.
Back when creamers were first introduced they consisted of primarily pure ingredients. Usually nothing more than sugar and cream. Today, however, manufacturers have modified their formula, leaving virtually no natural ingredients. That said, next time you feel the need to add cream to your coffee, choose the old-fashioned, full-fat variant.
#20 – Processed Meats
A good rule of thumb is to avoid eating anything processed, this is especially true when it comes to meat. First, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what meat is classified as “processed” in the first place. Generally, anything that has been preserved by curing, salting, smoking, drying, or canning would be classified as processed. This includes bacon, sausages, lunch meats, beef jerky, and a slew of others.
Regular consumption of processed meats has been linked with a number of chronic conditions. Some of these include hypertension, heart disease, pulmonary disease, and a number of cancers. Most of the damage is done by the chemicals commonly found in these meats, nitrate compounds for example.
These compounds are added to preserve the color and flavor of the meat, but the trade off is usually heavily skewed towards health risks. Research (on animals) has shown that these compounds play a large role in formation of bowel cancer. The takeaway here is that you don’t want to mess around with processed meats, and try to base your diet on fresh, whole foods.
#19 – Deep Fried Anything
No one is arguing against the “taste factor” when it comes to fried foods, but you should really weigh some of the health concerns before you reach for those chicken nuggets again. Deep fried foods damage your body in many different ways, leaving lasting consequences that add up over time. Think of a car – it needs to have clean oil and fuel to run efficiently and not break down constantly. Similarly, your body needs good food that can be converted into fuel without clogging the “machine” that you have to live with for the rest of your life.
Unfortunately, fried food does the opposite of that. From clogging your veins and arteries to causing obesity and cardiac problems, there isn’t much good that comes from consuming deep fried meals. Aside from the incredibly high caloric content from fat, fried foods generally don’t use the best ingredients either. Most restaurants and fast food joints will use canola oil, which has been linked to emphysema, respiratory distress, and cancer.
In most cases, fast food restaurants will also reuse the oil in their deep fryer for many hours, causing it to create toxic aldehydes. These compounds increase the risk of neurological disorders, leading to improper brain function.
#18 – Condiments
Here we’re talking about mayo, ranch, and ketchup specifically, but condiments, in general, aren’t all that great for you. When consumed in regularity, these foods can have a detrimental effect on your overall health. For starters, mayo and ranch consist mainly of saturated fats, which have been linked to a higher risk of obesity, heart disease, and hypertension.
In most cases, fats found in your favorite condiments come from soybean oil, which is widely regarded as the most processed and the least healthy oil on the market. Soybean oil is usually made from genetically modified beans, which is a red flag in itself. Additionally, soybeans are often heavily dosed in glyphosate – a highly dangerous herbicide.
Let’s take a look at mayo specifically. If you’re just buying regular mayo at the supermarket then you can expect it to be filled to the brim with fructose corn syrup (also an active ingredient in ketchup). Although ranch doesn’t contain any fructose corn syrup, it has problems of its own. Most brands are rife with MSG – a flavor enhancer that has been classified as an excitotoxin, a compound that can lead to cell damage.
#17 – Soy Sauce
Soy sauce has become a staple in Chinese cuisine and vegetable stir fry dishes. That said, you might want to consider skipping on it next time you’re ordering takeout. With soy sauce, the risk lies not in its caloric content, but rather the extremely high levels of sodium. A single spoonful contains nearly a single gram of sodium, which is more than half of the daily recommended dose.
When implementing soy sauce in your diet it’s extremely unlikely that you’ll only use a single spoonful. Consuming high amounts of sodium will not only lead to water retention – making you feel soft and bloated – but can also lead to hypertension. Those suffering from hypertension, or high blood pressure, face a much higher risk of strokes, heart attacks, and other cardiovascular problems.
Luckily, for those not ready to give up on soy sauce, there are multiple manufacturers that produce a low-salt variant, which contains far less sodium. That said, even the reduced-salt soy sauce is dangerous in high enough doses, so make sure to use it sparingly. Additionally, there are a number of alternatives to soy sauce out there, so experiment with a few (healthier) spices and see what livens up your meal.
#16 – Energy Drinks
Energy drinks aren’t technically food, but their detriments are definitely worth mentioning here. The Dubai Central Laboratory recently banned the sale of energy drinks to pregnant women or anyone under the age of 16 – receiving a similar treatment as tobacco products. Although the refreshing beverage might seem almost necessary at the beginning of a slow morning, you should never replace your coffee with an energy drink.
Most energy drinks contain about as much caffeine as four coffees, making it dangerous to your health. This is especially true for people with pre-existing cardiovascular concerns. Aside from the caffeine, energy drinks are often packed full of sugar – containing an average of 14 teaspoons in each can. By now you should understand the dangers of sugar, so we won’t get into that.
Aside from we know about energy drinks, what we don’t know might be even more alarming. Since these beverages are relatively new, there are no long-term studies on their effects. Some doctors believe that the possibilities include cardiovascular disease, liver damage, and even life-threatening risks to heart function.
#15 – Trail Mix
Trail mix is often cleverly marketed to athletes and people on the go, tricking them into thinking that it’s a healthy choice. On one side – trail mix contains a lot of seeds and nuts, which are packed with good fats that we know to be healthy. On the other – they’re also sprinkled with sweetened dried fruits, M&Ms, and chocolate, which definitely detract from its nutritional value.
A single cup of trail mix contains nearly 700 calories, which is more than a third of an average person’s recommended daily consumption. So if you’re working towards a fat-loss goal, there are many better snacking solutions out there. If you’re insistent on the trail mix, then consider making your own. Skip all of the sweet stuff, grab a few handfuls of mixed nuts and enjoy. This is a much better way to get some quality calories, fiber, vitamins, and minerals.
A lot of trail mix products contain hydrogenated oils, which have been linked to heart disease and an increase in LDL (bad) cholesterol. Additionally, many companies will add a whole bunch of salt to boost the flavor. In most cases, the amount of salt added is way higher than the daily recommended dose, so you can expect water retention and extra bloating.
#14 – Coleslaw
You know what they say – looks can be deceiving. While you might think that coleslaw is a healthy choice when it comes to picking a side for that delicious burger, you’re actually very misinformed. In reality, coleslaw is anything but good for your body – don’t let that cabbage (and carrots) fool you.
Unless you’re making it yourself, ensuring to go easy on the dressing, your coleslaw will come absolutely drenched in fatty mayonnaise. And while it might feel like you’re eating a “light” salad, you’re actually filling yourself up with virtually empty calories. Take KFC’s coleslaw, for example, sure it’s one of the more healthy (using that term loosely) menu items offered at the fast food chain, but it contains more saturated fat than a serving of fries.
An average serving of coleslaw comes out to nearly 300 calories, a lot of which are derived from fat. Sure, coleslaw is delicious, and if you’re craving it why not make it yourself? You don’t need to be a chef to pull it off, either. Hit the internet, look up a few recipes and give it a whirl. Pro tip: spice up the flavor with some lemon juice or a bit of vinegar.
#13 – Frosting
This should come as no surprise, but frosting is virtually viscous sugar. Any baking enthusiast is familiar with those huge tubs you can buy at virtually any major store, but be very mindful about implementing it in your diet. Most people realize that it’s not exactly a healthy choice, but many underestimate the true danger of this delicious topping – even in small amounts.
If you’re buying your frosting from a grocery store, then you’re likely getting a container full of trans fats, which will not only undermine your weight loss progress but also promote a vast range of health problems. For starters, people that eat a higher than average trans fat diet, are more likely to see an increase in their LDL (bad) cholesterol, and a decrease in the HDL (good) cholesterol.
There is also compelling evidence that regular consumption of trans fats is closely linked to type 2 diabetes – a beast you don’t want to mess with. Oh, and yeah – the sugar. A single serving of frosting has enough sugar to spike your blood sugar way out of the “healthy” range. All in all, having a cupcake once in a while won’t kill you, but if you can find the willpower to avoid eating it – do it.
#12 – Packaged Sandwiches
We’ve already established that pre-packaged foods are not ideal for your health, so why would you reach for that (frankly unappealing) sandwich. Before we dive into the many detriments of packaged sandwiches, let’s take a look at some basic nutritional info. For starters, an average sandwich will pack over 400 calories, and will likely leave you hungry for more.
You’re also likely to find that a large chunk of that caloric content is delivered in the form of saturated fat– considering that most pre-packaged sandwiches are stuffed with cheese or mayo in order to make them passable. As “delicious” as this may sound, many of these sandwiches (including the so-called “healthy” versions) can contain more than half of your recommended daily intake of fat.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with sandwiches themselves, and if you happen to catch yourself craving a quick snack why not make one yourself? Grab a few pieces of whole bread, some veggies, a lean meat of choice, and a little bit of light dressing. As convenient as packaged sandwiches may be, saving an extra five-minute is not worth your long term health.
#11 – Multigrain Products
While we’re on the topic of sandwiches, let’s take a look at one of their main ingredients – bread (specifically multigrain). Most people assume that multigrain bread is a healthy choice, but unfortunately, that’s not the case. In fact, every multigrain product out there – pasta, cereals, etc – contains refined grains instead of the healthier whole grains.
If you were fooled by the marketing behind multigrain bread, don’t worry, it’s not your fault. Unfortunately, the current law regarding ingredient descriptions allows manufacturers to label their products as “multigrain” even if the main ingredient consists primarily of refined grains.
You might be wondering – what’s the deal with refined grains? Well, simply put, they lack nutritional value and show a positive correlation with weight gain.
A number of studies have explored this topic, and researchers at Harvard Medical School found a very strong link between extra weight gain and regular consumption of multigrain products. Furthermore, research shows that regular consumption will increase the likelihood of developing heart disease and diabetes by over 140% when compared to a healthy person.
#10 – Canned Vegetables
Unless you’re planning to spend the next year in your underground bunker there is no benefit to canned veggies. Now, nobody’s saying you shouldn’t eat vegetables – quite the opposite actually, and if you’re just looking for that “convenience factor” then consider relying on frozen veggies instead. The reason for why you shouldn’t consume any canned goods lies in the can itself.
In order to increase shelf life, cans are treated with bisphenol A (more popularly known as BPA) which helps prevent the growth of bacteria and corrosion. This makes canned goods a great food of the last resort (it’s also easy to stockpile in case of an apocalypse), but other than that, try your best to avoid them.
BPA has been studied quite intensively, and research shows a strong correlation to reproductive problems, an increased risk of developing type-2 diabetes, heart disease, breast, and prostate cancers, as well as a whole array of neurological disorders. Although BPA is not inherently dangerous is small amounts, a recent study found that 92% of canned goods contain BPA, some in levels that surpass the “safe amount” by a factor of 200.
#9 – Sprouts
Sprouts (the way nature intended them to be) are packed to the brim with antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, and protein, but unfortunately, there is a larger issue at hand. Since sprouts require warm, moist conditions for optimal growth they’re more prone to being infected with bacteria that thrive in similar climates.
Although beans, alfalfa, radish and other sprouts are considered to be little “health bombs,” their growing conditions make them one of the most major sources of foodborne illness outbreaks on the planet. Over the course of the last couple of decades, contaminated sprouts have been the culprit in at least 40 major foodborne illness outbreaks in the US alone.
Recently (2011), contaminated sprouts resulted in an E. coli outbreak in Germany that killed at least 40 people and hospitalized thousands more with symptoms of kidney failure and anemia. Sprouts are definitely not delicious enough to risk your health for, so next time you want to add something crunchy to your turkey sandwich or pad thai, shred some cabbage or carrots instead. They will add a similar texture and high nutritional value without any health concerns.
#8 – GMO Corn
There is a lot of controversy surrounding genetically modified organisms – so much so, that they’re completely banned in more than 25 countries. The reason behind this strict policy lies in the unknown. As of now, scientists are still unsure what kind of damage GMOs are capable of doing to the body. Several studies performed on rats have shown an increase in infertility in their pups, as well as signs of wasting away over time.
So, what makes GMO corn more dangerous than other genetically modified products? Well, when it comes to corn or GMO plants in general, they’re engineered in such a way that they are able to survive heavy chemical applications. Additionally, GMO plants are often designed to produce their own pesticides – making them even more dangerous.
Aside from the numerous health risks, there are a few environmental concerns as well. For example, due to the growing lack of plant diversity (due to cross pollination with natural plants), natural plants need a lot more water to survive, as well as more chemicals to fight off pests. This excessive chemical use has been linked to the disappearance of bees, which can really harm agriculture as we know it unless we take action soon.
#7 – Stick Margarine
Chances are that you’ve already heard about the detriments of stick margarine, but it’s definitely worth reinforcing. A large chunk of the general public still genuinely believes that margarine is a healthier alternative to butter, unfortunately, that is not true. Although margarine is often marketed as a better alternative, in reality, it is nothing more than a sick of trans fat.
Many people have ditched butter in favor of margarine, some of which did it to lower their cholesterol levels, which is very ironic. Since margarine is composed of mainly trans fats, eating it will actually elevate your cholesterol levels, and possibly damage blood vessel walls, increasing the risk of cardiovascular disease. If you’re not yet convinced of the detriments, consider the following: margarine also decreases both the insulin and the immune response in your body and elevates the risk of various cancers up to five times.
Contrary to popular belief, there is nothing wrong with eating butter – in moderation, obviously. If you’re looking for a healthier alternative, though, consider a source of omega-3 fatty acids, instead – which will actually help improve your overall health. If you enjoy using butter in your culinary pursuits you can likely swap it for some coconut oil instead.
#6 – Protein Bars
Ah, protein bars – the ultimate snack on the go, right? Wrong! Regardless of what the supplement industry will have you believe, you need to look at the facts. As tempting as it might be to chew on one of these after a hard workout, you need to realize that protein bars are pretty much candy bars wrapped in misleading packaging.
As a macronutrient, protein is extremely important and everyone’s diet needs to include an adequate amount. Protein is also great at building and repairing muscle – that’s not the issue here. What’s wrong with protein bars is the fact that they are often packed with sugar, sodium, and fat, which can spike your blood sugar levels rapidly.
When your blood sugar levels spike it means that they must eventually crash, and when that happens (usually within an hour) you will start to feel hungry again. Additionally, it’s always best to get your protein from natural, whole foods, such as egg whites or chicken breast. As a general rule of thumb – try to avoid everything that comes prepackaged, there is a better alternative out there.
#5 – Fruit Juice
At first glance, fruit juice might seem like a great way to simultaneously pack a serving of fruit and start your day. Unfortunately, when it comes down to it – you might as well drink a glass of soda. Vast majority of fruit juice that you find at your grocery store is nothing more than flavored water packed with sugar and riddled with questionable chemicals.
Even some household names contain only about 10% actual juice – subsidizing the remainder with sugar-water. Aside from the obvious detriments of the high-sugar content, fruit juice also packs a few lesser known side effects. Citrus juices, for example, can damage your teeth, worsen migraines, and also trigger IBS symptoms.
I know what you’re thinking – what about 100 percent fruit juice? Surprisingly it’s not much better for you than the artificial stuff. While a serving of actual fruit will contain a lot of fiber (which your body needs), all of it is removed when fruit is processed into juice – leaving nothing more than fructose and a few vitamins. So next time you feel parched, grab a tall glass of water instead and get your daily fruit serving from actual fruit.
#4 – Fast Food
It should come as no surprise that fast food made it onto our list. As convenient as it may be, there is nothing good about it – it’s detrimental to your health and horrible for the environment. Let’s take a look at some of the obvious problems with fast food, starting with the ridiculous fat and caloric content.
Your standard fast food meal (burger, fries, and soda) can contain well over 1000 calories, which can amount to more than 50% of a person’s metabolic needs. Calories aside, fast food is also incredibly high in unhealthy fats and sodium, which presents a number of health concerns for the consumer. Research shows (unsurprisingly) that regular consumption of fast food leads to obesity, heart disease, hypertension, diabetes, and a host of other serious health conditions.
If that’s not enough to deter you, then consider the source of the ingredients. Since fast food is usually affordable, companies need to keep production costs down, which means they often use cheap meat from animals raised in inhumane, crowded conditions. Due to the crowding, disease can spread easily, meaning that these animals are kept on a heavy diet of antibiotics to increase their survival rate.
#3 – Whole Milk Dairy Products
Sure, when consumed in moderation, dairy products provide you with calcium and other essential vitamins and minerals. But, you know how the saying goes, you can have too much of a good thing. Even if you’re not lactose intolerant, too much whole milk dairy products can cause inflammation and promote a host of illnesses.
For starters, too much whole milk will cause you to age faster, increase your chances of developing rheumatoid arthritis and worsen migraines. Research also shows an increase in the risk of various cancers of the reproductive system due to the insulin-like growth factors found naturally in cow’s’ milk.
As if there aren’t enough natural ramifications of consuming whole milk dairy products, it’s also important to consider that cows are given cocktails of synthetic hormones in order to maximize their milk production. These hormones also affect the human hormonal balance, at times leading to much higher than normal levels of estrogen production in both boys and girls, which opens up the door to a slew of other health concerns.
#2 – Hot Dogs
Hot dogs are not only an extremely popular street food, but they’re also a huge part of America’s favorite pastime – baseball. If you’ve ever been to a game you’ve likely had one of these overpriced snacks. Chances are you’ve probably heard stories about how hot dogs are made from scraps, intestines, and what have you. These stories generally hold a bit of merit, but that’s not the primary reason for why you should avoid this all-American staple.
The biggest concern lies in the way hot dogs are made. In order to give them their signature color and texture, manufacturers add sodium nitrate – a compound linked to various cancers. Organic hot dogs aren’t any better, either. In fact, one study found that natural hot dogs contain about 10 times more sodium nitrate than the average street cart hot dog.
The second health concern comes from the way hot dogs are prepared. More often than not, they’re blasted with high temperatures. When this happens, hot dogs will form heterocyclic amines, which can cause colon tumors and increase the risk of colorectal cancer in humans. Additionally, hot dogs consist primarily of fats, making them a less than ideal option when it comes to snacking.
#1 – White Chocolate
People might be raving about the health benefits of dark chocolate, but unfortunately – not all cocoa goods are created equal. The hierarchy goes something like this: dark chocolate – milk chocolate – white chocolate, in descending order of health benefit, and here is why.
A three ounce serving of white chocolate contains about 50 grams of sugar (more than 12 tablespoons). At this point, you should be familiar with the health risks associated with a high sugar consumption. From tooth decay to insulin spikes, fat gain, and increased risk of diabetes, sugar has proven itself to be an ingredient that you don’t want to mess with.
The American Heart Association suggests that you don’t consume more than 100 calories from added sugar daily, which equates to about 25 grams, or 1.5oz of white chocolate (if you’re not eating anything else). Granted, it might be hard to pass on the delicious snack, but if you have a sweet tooth opt for a small serving of dark chocolate instead. While it might be an acquired taste for milk chocolate lovers, the switch is definitely worth it. Dark chocolate is packed with antioxidants and has shown to reduce inflammation, among other numerous benefits.