For about a year now, I have been reading more labels on my food before I buy them. This all started when I made the mistake of reading the ingredients list of pizza rolls. The amount of ingredients combined with the amount of them that I had no idea what they were blew my mind. I started to wonder what some of the ingredients were, why they were an ingredient, and if they were actually that bad or just had a scary name. So I picked a few common food items and researched their ingredients. I actually started with a larger list (five processes foods) but unfortunately because so many of the ingredients needed explaining, I just picked two for now and plan to do more posts about different ingredients in the future.
A couple notes before going over the actual ingredients. First point, it honestly really bummed me out how many items I had to google to know what they were and what they did. Not only because only a fraction of the ingredients were ‘real’ in the fact that I knew what they physically looked like outside the product, but also because I’ve been putting this stuff in my body for three decades and this is really the first time I’ve taken the time to know what I’m consuming.
I’m really going to try to avoid saying anything is bad for you. One, I’m not a food scientist or a nutritionist, but I also don’t know the quantity of most of these ingredients. If I read a large amount of [insert chemically-sounding ingredient] can kill you and I have no evidence that the product I’m talking about has a large amount of that ingredient, I won’t put that. Like you, I’m trying to decide for myself what’s okay to put in my body. Most of the ingredients I researched had several articles linking them to diseases. Many ingredients said they were “generally regarded as safe by the USDA.” Generally regarded as safe? Ah thank you government, I feel better now. Several of the ingredients were used for rust removal, cement stabilizer, and fertilizers. But I also know that tiny changes can completely change a substance, so I’m not going to assume I’m putting fertilizer in my body. But all this negative opinions are scary, whether it’s exaggerated or not.
I want to state that the information I’m sharing is simply a summary of what I’m reading online. I am not qualified to say whether something should be avoided or not. Anything I’m stating, I am focused on educating myself on what I put in my body. If this article interests you, I hope you will do some of your own research and decide what’s okay to consume and what you aren’t comfortable with, whether that be for health, animal rights, or the environment.
First Food: a popular brand of ranch.
Ingredients: vegetable oil (soybean and/or canola), water, sugar, salt, nonfat buttermilk, egg yolk, natural flavors, less than 1% of: spices, garlic, onion, vinegar, phosphoric acid, xanthum gum, modified food starch, monosodium glutamate, artificial flavors, disodium phosphate, sorbic acid and calcium disodium EDTA added to preserve freshness, disodium inosinate and guanylate.
That’s 21 ingredients listed, plus whatever counts for spices, natural flavors and artificial flavors.
- Phosphoric acid: As a food ingredient, it’s used to add sourness. Many sodas use a small amount of this acid. When I tried to find it to buy, most of this acid was for rust removal, but I did find one that breweries can add to beer to give it some tang.
- Xanthan gum: I see this everywhere: ice cream, dressing, sauces, etc. It is used to thicken products, but also helps keep consistency at different temperatures; good for stuff like ranch which is usually used once while shelf stable and room temp, then put in the fridge to be used over again. Like the gum we chew, our bodies can’t digest it. Xanthan gum is pretty easy to buy online and even at some stores.
- Modified food starch: This is a starch chemically altered in some ways to get rid of or to add characteristics to it. You can think of it this way: corn starch gets lumpy if put in a dish that’s too hot, so food scientist modify it to get rid of that characteristic. It seems weird, but there’s not a lot of negative press about this one. It’s used for similar reasons of xanthan gum.
- Monosodium glumate: Ahh good ole MSG, or what I like to call it “makes stuff good . Probably one you have heard of. It adds savoriness to food. Lots of controversy around MSG. It’s worth noting that MSG is naturally occurring in food like tomatoes. I’ve actually done quite a bit of research about MSG. I don’t actively seek MSG, but I know I’m going to consume sometimes and I’m okay with it.
- Disodium Phospate: It’s not clear why this ingredient is in this ranch, as it serves different purposes for different products, but my guess is it’s used to keep the milk smooth. If you research this product, you’re not going to find a lot of good things about it. Phosphates in general aren’t known to be healthy for humans. But on the bright side, this product used to be made out of animal urine, so at least you’re not pouring cow pee on your salad anymore.
- Sorbic acid: Used as a preservative. It’s naturally occurring and had very little negative press about it when I researched it. Yay health!
- Calcium Disodium EDTA: EDTA stands for a really long chemical word. It’s also used as a preservative. There’s an interesting amount of health benefits of this product, as it is sold as a supplement. However, the FDA has set a limitation of 75 parts per million of EDTA for salad dressing. That’s a really low number, which would make me hesitant in consuming it as a supplement.
- Disodium Inosinate: if you see this ingredient, you should also see MSG, as it is ineffective without it. It also adds a savory flavor like MSG, and has the same mixed reviews as MSG.
- Guanylate: Same category as MSG and disodium inosinate. Although it doesn’t seem to have the bad rep of MSG, it’s almost always used with MSG.
Second Food: A late night or quick dinner option consisting of several bite-size pouches filled with pizza flavors. I don’t know if I will get in trouble saying the brand names of stuff here, so I’m hoping my hints are good enough.
Ingredients: Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Ferrous Sulfate, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid), Tomato Puree (Water, Tomato Paste), Water, Imitation Mozzarella Cheese (Water, Palm Oil, Modified Corn Starch, Vegetable Oil [Soybean, High Oleic Soybean and/or Canola Oil], Rennet Casein, Salt, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Citric Acid, Guar Gum, Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Sodium Citrate, Sodium Phosphate, Titanium Dioxide [Artificial Color], Maltodextrin, Magnesium Oxide, Zinc Oxide, Vitamin A Palmitate, Riboflavin, Vitamin B12), Vegetable Oil (Soybean, High Oleic Soybean and/or Canola Oil), Imitation Mozzarella Cheese (Water, Palm Oil, Rennet Casein, Modified Potato Starch, Vegetable Oil [Soybean, High Oleic Soybean and/or Canola Oil], Potato Starch, Vital Wheat Gluten, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate, Potassium Chloride, Salt, Citric Acid, Potassium Sorbate [Preservative], Sodium Phosphate, Sodium Citrate, Titanium Dioxide [Artificial Color], Maltodextrin, Magnesium Oxide, Zinc Oxide, Riboflavin, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin B6, Vitamin B12). Contains less than 2% of: Rehydrated Fat Free Mozzarella Cheese (Water, Skim Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes, Citric Acid, Vitamin A Palmitate, Vitamin B6), Sugar, Modified Corn Starch, Salt, Modified Whey, Defatted Soy Flour, Spice, Methylcellulose, Onion Powder, Rehydrated Enzyme Modified Cheese (Water, Milk, Cheese Cultures, Salt, Enzymes), Dextrose, TBHQ (Preservative), Natural Flavor.
Oh boy, this is going to take awhile. There are 33 unique ingredients that don’t have ‘real food’ names. My favorite part is that there are two different kinds of imitation mozzarella cheese. I will take the unique ingredients in each of those and explain what they are.
- Enriched Flour: This flour has been stripped of natural nutrients in order to improve the consistency and shelf life, then nutrients are added back to make up for the process. These nutrients are in the parentheses following the word and are listed next in more detail.
- Niacin: Or Vitamin B3 that probably existed in the flour before it was processed and now added back.
- Ferrous Sulfate: Adds iron to your body. Was stripped then added to the enriched flour.
- Thiamin Mononitrate: Form of Vitamin B1 added to the enriched flour.
- Folic Acid: a form of B9 added back to the flour.
- Palm Oil: Palm oil is made from palm fruit and is high in saturated fat. But more controversy surrounds the fact that harvesting palm fruit for palm oil is quite devastating to the environment. Read more here.
- Modified Corn Starch: see the above list of ingredients
- Rennet Casein: Rennet is curdled milk from the stomach of an unweaned calf. When the milk is curdled, it forms the casein (curds) and whey. From everything I read, these calves are killed (meat is used for veal) and the inside of their stomachs are processed after. It’s used in foods for texture and creating nice melting quality in some cheeses.
- Sodium Aluminum Phosphate: A “generally recognized as safe” ingredient by the FDA ingredient. It is naturally occurring in some foods, but added here. Used to improve texture or other qualities. In general, phosphates have a lot of bad news around them.
- Potassium Chloride: Used as a flavor enhancer and is usually an ingredient in salt substitutes (used to reduce sodium content in foods).
- Citric Acid: now made from a type of mold, citric acid adds tartness to foods. Although natural lemon or lime juice would be preferred here, there’s not a ton of negative issues associated with citric acid.
- Guar Gum: Used to thicken or stabilize. Usually found in a powder, it’s made from the guar bean. While xanthan gum (from above) is usually used in baked or room temp foods, guar gum works better with cold or frozen foods. Doesn’t seem like an ingredients that is good or bad for you.
- Potassium Sorbate: used as a preservative, but is not naturally occurring. It does have a maximum of how much a food manufacturer can use, which I think is a red flag, but this preservative is widely used and if you’re eating anything processed, it will be hard to avoid it.
- Sodium Citrate: Either used to add a tang to the cheese in this food or to improve the melting qualities of the cheese. This is one ingredient that I’m actually seeing in ‘normal’ recipes, mostly to make a smooth nacho cheese at home.
- Titanium Dioxide: used to make white food whiter (also used in toothpaste and sunscreen). Recent studies say this chemical may be more harmful than what we know. Worth noting, that some titanium dioxides are banned in parts of the EU.
- Maltodextrin: Mostly used to add volume to food (’empty calories’) or as an artificial sweetener. It’s made from highly-processed starches. It will most likely spike your blood sugar, so if that’s a concern for you, it would be an ingredient to avoid.
- Magnesium Oxide: Used for either color, drying, or correcting pH levels in food, it is actually also used as a supplement with benefits.
- Zinc Oxide: Another ingredient mostly there to enhance the color of the food. Quite a few posts suggesting this is probably not something you want to consume often. A lot of research is being done to try to prove it is safe.
- Vitamin A Palmitate: Most likely used as a preservative. Unless you are told to not consume a lot of Vitamin A, there isn’t much literature out there saying this ingredient is problematic.
- Riboflavin: most likely used for food coloring (yellow, orange, and red colors), Riboflavin is Vitamin B2.
- Modified Potato Starch: Like the other modified starches, it was changed in some way (physically, chemically or with enzymes) to reduce bad qualities of this starch or improve it in some way. One reason for this is to cook faster, which would make sense for frozen foods that are usually microwaved.
- Vital Wheat Gluten: Made from taking the protein from wheat flour. There is little to no starch in vital wheat gluten. Used to increase the gluten levels of flours to improve texture.
- Modified Whey: Whey is simply the liquid leftover after making cheese. But it is modified for processed food (using chemicals, enzymes or physical changes, like heat) to improve the texture of the food.
- Defatted Soy Flour: It wasn’t easy to find out how you defat flour. But soy flour is flour made from dried soybeans, then something is done to that flour to reduce its fat content to almost nothing. If you research it, this flour is mostly seen as a healthy and gluten-free alternative to wheat flour, but having no good explanation of how it’s defatted makes me cautious.
- Methylcellulose: Used to thicken food and to prevent ice crystals, but is also used as a laxative in other forms. Since it’s made from cellulose, your body can’t digest it.
- Rehydrated Enzyme Modified Cheese: Cheese treated with enzymes to make a more concentrated cheese flavor. More bang for your buck if you will. Rehydrated just means the cheese was most likely once a powder and liquid was introduced to create what you’re tasting in this food.
- Dextrose: sugar made from corn. It’s really cheap, which is why you’ll see it in cheaper processed foods. If you have blood sugar issues, it’s something to be aware of. For everyone else, just recognize you shouldn’t consume it too often.
- TBHQ: Used for a preservative. A ton of controversy around this ingredient. The FDA sets a limit for food with TBHQ. It is banned in Japan.
Ok, that was a lot. First off, you don’t need to memorize these ingredients, but do take note of a couple of them in hopes to make your shopping decisions easier. The real moral of this post is if you eat more wholesome food, you don’t have to worry about all these crazy ingredients and what they could do to your body. When you do eat junk food, just remember it’s not just the calories, saturated fat, and sodium that can make them unhealthy, it’s really the additives that would never enter your body otherwise.