Live Right Live Well: Diet
(Not so) Strange Ingredients
By Stacey Colino for Live Right Live Well
Soy lecithin, sodium stearoyl lactylate, maltodextrin …. These days, the ingredient lists on soups, cereals, salad dressings, crackers and other packaged goods are filled with such tongue-twisting names that you might think you need a chemistry degree to decipher them. But don’t let that deter you from trying to make sense of food labels. While these words may not seem familiar, “once you start looking into what they are, you may be relieved to find out that most of them are fairly normal substances,” says Tara Gidus, a registered dietitian and nutrition coach at the Human Performance Institute in Orlando, Fla. Plus, familiarizing yourself with strange-sounding food ingredients will help you choose items that will benefit your health and avoid those that could harm you. Here's a guide to common food additives -- what they are, what they do and where they lurk.
Lactose, fructose, dextrose, maltose, glucose, sucrose, and high fructose corn syrup Anything that ends with “ose” is a form of sugar and will give beverages, cookies, cereals, crackers and other snack foods a dose of sweetness. Ingredients that end in “ol” (mannitol or sorbitol) are sugar alcohols -- carbohydrates that are part-sugar and part-alcohol. They also impart sweetness but are lower in calories than “ose” forms of sugar, notes Cindy Moore, a registered dietitian and director of nutrition therapy at the Center for Human Nutrition at the Cleveland Clinic. So remember, just because “sugar” isn’t listed on a label doesn’t mean the food is sugar-free.
Casein is a milk protein used as a thickening or whitening agent in coffee creamer, ice creams and puddings, says Gidus. If you’re allergic to milk, avoid foods with casein.
Guar gum is extracted from the guar bean and is used as a thickener and stabilizer, improving the texture and mouth feel of frozen desserts, puddings, cakes, jams, jellies and sauces. Because it’s a water-soluble fiber, guar gum is not absorbed by the body, adds Gidus. This is a good thing because it “can create a sense of fullness and can also regulate how quickly blood sugar rises,” she explains. “So it may be good for diabetics and people looking to lose weight."
Maltodextrin is derived from starches, such as corn, rice, potatoes and wheat. It’s moderately sweet and is used as a thickener in a wide array of foods, including cereals, breads, crackers and canned fruits, Gidus says. If you have celiac disease or a wheat sensitivity, check food ingredients for maltodextrin, since it can come from wheat.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is used as a flavor enhancer in a variety of foods, including soups, salad dressings, canned vegetables and frozen meals. MSG comes from glutamate, an amino acid found naturally in all protein-containing foods. While the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) considers MSG safe, some are sensitive to it and get headaches, flushing or shortness of breath after consuming it, notes Gidus.
Natural colors include any dyes that come from a fruit, vegetable, mineral or animal source, says Moore. While most people wouldn’t think twice about fruit or vegetable coloring, carmine is a crimson-colored dye derived from crushed cochineal insects. It’s most commonly used in yogurts, candies, juices and other colored snack foods. Because it can cause allergic reactions in some people, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has called on the FDA to remove insect-based dyes from its list of approved food colorings, but so far, that hasn’t happened.
Pectin acts as a food stabilizer and gives jams, jellies and pie fillings a gel-like consistency. It’s a form of soluble fiber derived from fruits, especially citrus fruits and apples, says Gidus.
Sodium stearoyl lactylate and its close cousin calcium stearoyl lactylate are made by combining lactic acid (from milk or milk sugar) with stearic acid (found naturally in many animal fats and vegetable oils) and then exposing them to either sodium hydroxide or calcium hydroxide (both of which are forms of salt). The resulting ingredient is used as either a dough conditioner to help create a uniform shape and volume in bread products, or as a whipping agent in whipped cream or egg whites.
Soy lecithin comes from soybeans. It gives food a smooth consistency and keeps different ingredients from separating. You’ll find this ingredient in everything from baked goods and chocolate to peanut butter and ice cream. If you’re allergic to soy, though, steer clear of products with soy lecithin, advises Gidus.
Xanthan gum is used to thicken and stabilize salad dressings, sauces and ice cream, and give them a consistent texture. It’s produced when sugar in the form of glucose or sucrose is fermented by a bacterial species called Xanthomonas campestris. While this may sound strange, xanthan gum is considered safe for most people. However, those with celiac disease, migraines and certain allergies may be sensitive to it.
So there you have it -- the inside scoop on weird-sounding food additives. As you can see, most are derived from other foods and aren’t so mysterious when you know what they really are. By learning about the ingredients you eat, you can avoid items that may be troublesome for you and ensure that you enjoy your food -- both while you’re eating it and afterward.
Stacey Colino has written for The Washington Post's health section and many national magazines, including Newsweek, Woman's Day, SELF, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Parenting, Sports Illustrated and Ladies' Home Journal. Stacey is a frequent contributor to Live Right Live Well.
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