Have you ever read an ingredient list on a packaged food item and come away feeling less informed than when you started out? It’s little wonder. The labels on processed foods can be lengthy and highly cryptic!
Many of those unrecognizable ingredients (especially those with acronyms for names) are best avoided if you are seeking to eat as naturally as possible. On the other hand, some beneficial ingredients lurk under technical-sounding names.
The following is a glossary of the most common food ingredients with bizarre names. Along the way, you will find out how the ingredients are derived, their potential benefits, and their risks.
Check back periodically. This glossary will likely continue to grow.
- Acetic acid. The compound that gives vinegar its flavor and acidity. Used for flavor and as a preservative. May help fight bacteria, reduce inflammation, and regulate blood sugar. Generally recognized as safe, although some individuals are allergic to it.
- Agar. Derived from seaweed. Used as a vegetarian substitute for gelatin (in other words, as a thickener). May be beneficial to dieters, as it leaves them feeling satisfied after eating.
- Annatto. A yellowish-red dye. Derived from the fruit of a tropical tree called the achiote. There are no particular benefits or risks associated with using annatto in the amounts typically used in food.
- Ascorbic acid. Vitamin C. Used to keep foods fresher longer and to replace the vitamin C lost during processing. Important for immune function and fighting off free radicals.
- Aspartame. A low-calorie sweetener. There is a great deal of conflicting research on this ingredient. However, it appears that aspartame can raise blood sugar levels. May also cause brain damage in people with phenylketonuria.
- Autolyzed yeast extract. A product obtained by breaking down yeast cells with salt or heat to release the soluble portions for concentration and pasteurization. It is used as an inexpensive source of monosodium glutamate (see below). Associated with the same side effects as MSG.
- BHA. Butylated hydroxyanisole. A synthetic antioxidant used in a wide range of foods, as well as in wax food packaging. Used to protect fats from going rancid in storage. Possibly a carcinogen.
- BHT. Butylated hydroxytolulene. An antioxidant used primarily in cereals and fats. Used to maintain flavor and color in storage. Possibly a carcinogen.
- Carrageenan. A natural seaweed extract. Used as a thickener. Considered safe by the FDA, but no longer allowed in organic food production due to potential health risks. Carrageenan may promote gastrointestinal inflammation and ulceration.
- Citric acid. Can be obtained by feeding sucrose or glucose from corn to black mold. The mold converts the sugar to a citric acid solution and is then filtered out. Citric acid is used to adjust the pH and flavor of the food, as well as to prevent bacterial growth in canned foods. Generally considered to be safe. However, it can cause allergic reactions in those sensitive to corn or mold, gastrointestinal irritation in those sensitive to acid, and enamel erosion of the teeth in most people.
- DATEM. Diacetyl tartaric acid esters of mono- and diglycerides. An emulsifier used to strength the gluten network of dough, thus enhancing its texture. Generally regarded as safe in humans.
- Dextrose. A natural sweetener that is 70% as sweet as sucrose. It comes from various plant sources, such as corn.
- Disodium guanylate. A product of fermentation, typically from tapioca starch. Often used as a substitute for monosodium glutamate, as it contributes the same savory taste to food without some of the side effects. However, the two ingredients are typically used together because disodium guanylate can be expensive.
- Disodium phosphate. A stabilizer and thickener. Used to keep food moist. Considered safe by the FDA, but it does elevate phosphorus levels in the body. This can be a concern for those with liver, kidney, heart, lung, or endocrine disease.
- EDTA. Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid. Stabilizes foods, preventing ingredients from separating or oxidizing and also keeping colors and flavors fresh. Generally thought to be safe, although limited research is available.
- Erythritol. A natural sugar alcohol usually derived from cornstarch. Used as a zero-calorie sweetener because it is poorly metabolized by the body and does not raise blood sugar levels. Regarded by the FDA as safe. May cause nausea or gastrointestinal discomfort.
- Fructose. Natural fruit sugar. The main concern with fructose is that it is metabolized very rapidly, causing a “sugar high” and potentially leading to excess fat accumulation in the liver.
- Glucose. Simple sugar. Usually obtained from corn.
- Glutamic acid. Another name for monosodium glutamate (see below).
- Glycerol. Also known as glycerin. Used to add moisture to fat-free foods and to stabilize foods that contain both water and oil. Also serves as a thickener and a sweetener. May enhance athletic performance.
- Gum arabic. A water-soluble gum obtained from the sap of the acacia tree. Used as a thickener. May promote beneficial bacterial growth in the gut, enhance feelings of fullness after a meal, reduce inflammation, and help regulate hormone production. Large amounts may cause indigestion and related gastrointestinal symptoms.
- Hydrolyzed protein. Proteins that have been chemically broken down into amino acids. Used to enhance flavors because the amino acid glutamate tends to join with any available sodium to form monosodium glutamate, known for its savory taste.
- Inulin. A soluble fiber extracted from chicory root by means of a solvent; inulin can also be synthesized from sucrose. Used to create high-fiber, low-calorie foods. Helps satiate hunger, relieve constipation, increase calcium absorption, and encourage the growth of beneficial bacteria in the digestive system. A few individuals may experience gastric discomfort after eating it.
- Lactic acid. Obtained from dairy products. Used to make food more acidic, whether to promote fermentation, long shelf life, or just tart flavor. Thought to be harmless.
- Lecithin. A phospholipid, which is a fatty substance containing a phosphate group (phospholipids are major components of all cell membranes). Used as an emulsifier, which is an ingredient that keeps the other ingredients in a mixture uniformly distributed to enhance food texture. A source of the vitamin choline.
- Locust bean gum. Produced from the seeds of the carob tree. Used as a thickener, particularly in dairy products. Also provides a satisfying chocolate flavor. Believed to stabilize cholesterol and blood sugar levels.
- Maltodextrin. Derived from starchy grains, such as corn, wheat, and rice. Used as a binder and carrier to more evenly disperse ingredients throughout a mixture. Also a thickener. Currently considered to be safe. It is known to cause blood sugar spikes, and preliminary research suggests it may promote the growth of harmful gut bacteria.
- Modified food starch. Chemically modified starch particles derived from a number of sources. Used as a binder.
- Monosodium glutamate (MSG). Occurs naturally in some ingredients, such as seaweed, but typically produced by fermenting starches or sugars, such as molasses. Mostly used to enhance flavor without significantly increasing sodium levels, as it is a powerful source of savory tastes. Classified by the FDA as generally safe. Associated with flushing, numbness, tingling, drowsiness, headaches, nausea, and heart palpitations in MSG-sensitive people.
- Natural flavors. This can mean almost anything as long as it comes from an ingredient that can be found in nature. Ingredients classified as natural flavors can range anywhere between garlic powder and yeast extract (a source of MSG). The two main downsides of natural flavors are that most of them contain chemical solvents and that one cannot really be sure what ingredients they are derived from (a potential problem for those with food allergies).
- Polysorbate. A group of emulsifiers. Polysorbates used in food include polysorbate 60 and polysorbate 80. Currently considered to be a low-risk ingredient, although it has come under some scrutiny. May be associated with inflammation, cancer, and reproductive difficulties.
- Potassium chloride. Used to give food a salty taste without increasing sodium levels.
- Potassium phosphate. A versatile food additive. Thickens food, maintains pH, retains moisture, prevents oil separation, and increases shelf life. Generally considered safe. May be harmful to people with impaired kidney function.
- Potassium sorbate. Used to increase shelf life. No health benefits or adverse effects are known.
- Propylene glycol. A synthetic alcohol. Used as a sweetener, an emulsifier, a preservative, and an anti-caking agent, among other things. Generally considered to be safe unless consumed in excess. It may cause rashes in those prone to allergic dermatitis. (Please note that this is not the same thing as ethylene glycol, the toxic ingredient found in antifreeze.)
- Protein isolate. A protein powder obtained by extensive cooking and filtering of a protein source. The protein source varies; soy, peas, and whey are common. Generally highly digestible, but may contain harmful processing chemicals.
- Pyridoxine hydrochloride. Vitamin B6. Used to fortify breads, cereals, and other grain-based products. Helps to support a healthy immune system and nervous system.
- Silicon dioxide. Also known as silica. Used as an anti-caking agent. Generally considered safe.
- Sodium carbonate. Baking soda.
- Sodium phosphate. Used to maintain the pH balance of food, thus improving texture and water-holding capacity. Has a mild laxative effect.
- Sorbitol. A sugar alcohol. Typically derived from fruits, corn, or seaweed. Used as a slow-metabolizing sweetener. Does not cause tooth decay like sugar does. May cause nausea and diarrhea, even in small doses.
- Spices. Any number of plant-based flavor enhancers.
- Stevia. A natural carbohydrate-free sweetener derived from the leaves of a plant similar to the sunflower. It is 200 times sweeter-tasting than sugar, but may have an unpleasant aftertaste. May also cause a reaction in people allergic to ragweed.
- Sucralose. An artificial sweetener that is 600 times sweeter than sugar. May be harmful to beneficial bacteria in the digestive tract, which can lead to bloating, flatulence, and diarrhea. May raise blood sugar and insulin levels in some individuals.
- Tocopherols. Vitamin E. Used as a preservative to keep fats and oils from going rancid in storage. Generally beneficial to the body, as it protects cells from free radicals and may promote cardiovascular health.
- Xanthan gum. A very effective thickener used in many foods, but particularly in gluten-free foods to improve texture. Generally considered to be safe. May cause digestive upsets in sensitive individuals.
- Xylitol. A crystalline alcohol. Typically produced in the lab from xylose, which is an indigestible sugar derived from birch bark. Used as a low-calorie sweetener. May cause bloating, diarrhea, and general gastric discomfort.
- Yeast extract. Essentially the same as autolyzed yeast extract. Used to add MSG and its associated savory taste to food without negative perceptions among consumers. Associated with the same side effects as MSG.