Archive for Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Just the facts

What do all the big words on your foods’ nutrition labels mean?

February 21, 2007


Buy a can of Campbell's Chicken Alphabet Soup, and you'll find another alphabet soup on the label.

The ingredients aren't just chicken, noodles and broth.

You'll also find monosodium glutamate, sodium phosphate, thiamin mononitrate, hydrolyzed wheat gluten, riboflavin and niacin.

In fact, if you've ever checked out the labels of your food, you've likely encountered some big words that are easier to ignore than they are to pronounce.

The International Food Information Council reports there are approximately 3,000 food additives used in the United States, and they are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. In general, they fall under seven categories:

¢ Acidulants - Acids that are used for flavoring, as preservatives and for gelling and coagulation. Lemon-lime beverages, for instance, get their tang from acidulants.

¢ Antioxidants - Preservatives that keep fats and oils from becoming rancid when they come in contact with the air.

¢ Colors - Used to get foods just the right hue.

¢ Emulsifiers - Chemicals that help two or more other substances combine more easily. Salad dressing and mayonnaise, which combine fats or oil with water, have emulsifiers.

¢ Flavors and flavor enhancers - Chemicals that, as their name implies, aid a food's flavor. Monosodium glutamate (MSG) is a common enhancer.

¢ Gums - Provide thickness to foods and help form gels in products such as frozen desserts and salad dressings.

¢ Preservatives - Allow foods to keep longer on the shelf or in your cupboard.

Nutrition information

Diet soda

Aspartame - Artificial sweetener, made of amino acids and methanol.

Citric acid - Tart flavoring.

Phosphoric acid - Acidifies and flavors cola beverages.

Potassium benzoate - Preservative to prevent growth of mold and bacteria.

Propylene glycol alginate - Thickening agent that is a derivative of seaweed.

Red 40 - The most widely used food dye. It's also found in sausage, gelatin desserts and candies.

Breakfast cereals

Butylated hydroxyanisole or butylated hydroxytoluene - Antoxidant that keeps fats and oils from going rancid.

Ascorbic acid - Another name for vitamin C. Used as a nutrient additive in cereals, and also prevents loss of color and flavor by reacting with unwanted oxygen.


Calcium propionate - Prevents mold growth on bread and rolls.

Calcium stearoyl lactylate - Strengthens bread dough so it can be used in bread-making machinery.

Dextrose - Turns brown when heated and helps make the color of bread.

Monoglyceries and diglycerides - Makes bread softer and keeps it from becoming stale.

Hot dogs

Sodium nitrate and sodium nitrite - Stabilizes the red color in cured meat. Without sodium nitrate or nitrite, hot dogs would look gray.

Hydrolyzed vegetable protein - Consists of vegetable protein that has been broken down. Used to enhance flavor.

Fruit juice

Sodium benzoate - Prevents growth of microorganisms in acidic foods.

Ice cream

Carrageenan - Seaweed product that thickens foods.

Casein - Principal protein in milk, added to some dairy products.

Gelatin - Protein obtained from animal hides and bones that serves as a thickening agent.

Gums - Several different types of gums that are added to ice cream to replace fat in healthier varieties.

Lecithin - Common component of animal and plant tissues that keeps oil and water from separating out.

Lactitol - Sweetener made from milk sugar.

Sodium carboxymethol-cellulose - Thickening and stabilizing agent.

Source: Center for Science in the Public Interest


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