I had another post in the works, but after doing a little nutrition-related reading tonight, was inspired to write about something different– the many food additives and preservatives that make their way into our food supply.

If you have visited a supermarket recently, whether in Buenos Aires or Anywhere, U.S.A., you have likely bought something that contained soy lecithin, maltodextrin or any number of natural or synthetically-derived ingredients. For the non-chemist or food scientist among us, the often-extensive list of additives that accompany any given processed food can be overwhelming. Pronouncing the malto-, mono- and oligo-‘s is difficult enough, but recognizing and understanding what said chemicals do in the body is another story entirely.

The inspiration for this post comes from “Eat This, Not That: the Supermarket Survival Guide.” Written by the Editor-in-Chief of Men’s Health magazine and the Food and Nutrition Editor of the same publication, the pocket-sized book uses images to illustrate easy food swaps that can be made for more nutritious and less caloric options.

While the book sometimes favors chemically-saturated items in lieu of their more wholesome and sometimes more caloric counterparts (boo on you, David Zinczenko and Matt Goulding!) , its food additive glossary is a tremendously helpful resource.

Rather than discussing every food additive you might encounter on a trip to Stop & Shop or Safeway, I’ve selected five of the most common additives to everything from chocolate ice cream to instant oatmeal.

Thanks to David and Matt for the info!

1. Lecithin

What? Lecithin is a naturally-occuring emulsifier that keeps fats from going rancid. Lecithin is commonly derived from egg yolks or soybeans. Hence “soy lecithin.”

Found in: Ice cream, margarine, pastries, cooking oil sprays.

The 411: According to the book’s authors, lecithin is a great source of choline, an organic compound that helps cells and nerves communicate and play a role in digesting fats and cholesterol.

Safe? Seems it is.

2. Maltodextrin

What? M’dextrin is a caloric sweetener and “flavor enhancer” derived from rice, potatoes or cornstarch. After being treated with enzymes and acids, m’dextrin becomes a fibrous thickening agent.

Found in: Canned fruit, instant pudding, sauces, dressings and chocolate.

The 411: M’dextrin is like any other sugar in that it contributes largely nutrient-empty calories and raises blood glucose and insulin levels. Fine in moderation, like any other sugar source.

Safe? Yes.

3. Mono- and diglycerides

What? Mono- and diglycerides are fats added to food items that serve to bind liquids to fatty acids. Mono- and diglycerides occur naturally in foods.

Found in: Peanut butter, ice cream, margarine, baked goods and “whipped topping.”

The 411: M- and d-glycerides, like any other fat source, contribute 9 calories per gram, but are otherwise harmless.

Safe? Yes, ma’am.

4. Xanthan gum

What? A common emulsifier and thickener made from glucose; its synthesis involves a bacterium called Xanthomonas campestris.

Found in: Whipped toppings, salad dressings, marinades, custards, pie filling.

The 411: No adverse effects have been associated with xanthan gum.

Safe? See the 411.

5. Inulin

What? Inulin is a naturally occurring plant fiber found in fruits and vegetables. Inulin is commonly added to foods to boost their fiber content or build the “mouth feel” that fat would otherwise contribute. Most of the inulin found in foods today is extracted from the chicory root or synthesized from sucrose.

Found in: Smoothies, meal-replacement bars and anything touting a “now contains fiber!” claim.

The 411: The soluble and insoluble fibers in, say, an apple, help regulate bowel function, stabilize blood sugar and help the body absorb nutrients like calcium and iron. How inulin that has been isolated from a plant source and added to something that never had any or much fiber to begin with (e.g. juice) is as of yet unclear. My opinion? Don’t waste your money on a product that uses inulin to boost fiber counts when its benefits and efficacy have not been established. Simply implanting a nutrient from one food source to another may not guarantee that its health benefits are transmitted as well.

Safe? Yes, but worthwhile? That is up to you, dear consumer.

The five additives I profiled all appear to be harmless additions to foods, but many more (MSG, olestra, aspartame) are and have been associated with negative health effects in humans and in animal subjects.

All told, try to select foods in as pure a form as possible when grocery shopping. Choose deliciously sweet Pink Lady apples rather than a pink-colored drinkable “yoghurt product,” and foods with as short an ingredient list as possible. Between the added cost and the lack of solid evidence regarding many of these food additives, it may be best to stay the course and do what our ancestors did for thousands of year before us– eat simple foods.

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