Have you ever taken a look at the ingredients list on the packaging of your favorite snack, only to find that you can barely pronounce half of the words, let alone identify them? We’ve all been there, and with an ever-increasing variety of additives that food manufacturers are using to improve the longevity, taste and texture of their products, it may seem like a daunting task to sit there and decipher the purpose behind each one. To make this process a lot simpler, I have compiled a list of a few of the most common additives and ingredients we find in a wide range of food products. From sweeteners to stabilizers, here are some frequently found ingredients and everything there is to know about them—both good and bad!
This funky sounding substitute is actually a derivative from red seaweed and is commonly found in nut milks and dairy products. While the name itself sounds rather complex, its purpose in food is actually quite simple: it serves as a thickener and gelling agent. Carrageenan can achieve a wide range of textures and is what gives us that thick and creamy texture in some ice creams and yogurt. So, what’s the catch? Recent research on carrageenan indicates that it may also have inflammatory effects in our bodies, acting as the root cause for gastrointestinal (GI) disorders in our digestive tract (like IBS or ulcers). So while it can improve the texture of foods, it may be best to stay away from this one, especially if you already experience GI discomfort.
When many of us hear “gum” we automatically think of the kind we chew, but gums are also a common substance used in food production due to their thickening power and their ability to bind and stabilize ingredients. Xanthan gum comes from a type of fermented bacteria and is most commonly sold in powder-form. This additive is more prevalent than you may realize, and you will likely find it just by scanning through the ingredients in any of your salad dressings, sauces, or dairy products. So now you know its purpose…but is it safe? In moderate amounts, xanthan gum is considered to be relatively harmless and safe to eat, though it has been linked to bloating and gas in some people. If you fear you may be experiencing these side effects, perhaps it is best to steer clear of foods with xanthan gum listed as an ingredient.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
You have likely heard of this one by now, as it has gotten its fair share of attention over the past few years. Putting aside its fancy name, HFCS is simply a sweetener…and a very sweet one at that. As its name suggests, it is made from corn starch that has been broken down into a syrup, consisting of a mixture of glucose and fructose molecules (or simple sugars). Because of its cheap production costs and its high degree of sweetness, it is a popular choice amongst many food manufacturers. But take caution! Too much consumption of HFCS has been linked to increased cholesterol and weight gain, and may ultimately lead to diabetes, so it is best to try limiting foods that include HFCS (or any added sugars for that matter) in your diet.
Maltodextrin is widely used in many foods due to its versatility. From processed meats to sports drinks to dairy products, this glucose-derived powder is added to foods in all of these categories to transform textures into pastes/powders and stabilizes other ingredients to prevent clumping. Maltodextrin is Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) by the FDA, though it has no nutritional value and is often found in heavily processed foods, which we should already try to steer clear of for many other reasons.
So, next time you find yourself at the food store attempting to decode a list of ingredients, do not be discouraged by those long names and hard-to-pronounce words. For many additives, their purpose is a lot simpler than you may think, and being able to identify them can allow you to shop consciously and make better decisions for your health. And remember…when in doubt, it is always best to stick to fresh, clean foods that do not contain any additives. You will rarely go wrong, if you choose foods with ingredient lists that are short, contain words you can pronounce and do not list sugar or any sugar alternatives. You can never go wrong with good old fruits and veggies!