Unprocessed FAQ: Additives, Preservatives, and other Confusing Ingredients

Unprocessed Additives, Flavors and Other Ingredients

If you haven’t taken the October Unprocessed pledge yet, please do it today. (If you already eat this way all the time, take the pledge and show your support! And if you think it’s too daunting, how about for just two weeks? Or even a day? Do what you can, and take charge of your health!) … We’ve got a lot of momentum together, and this is turning into something really powerful. Keep it up — and tell your friends!

When you start reading the ingredient lists for most packaged foods, you’ll see some patterns emerge. I’ve already discussed a few of these in recent posts: Refined flour shows up a lot, and sugar is in nearly everything (often several times under different names, so it appears lower in the list).

Today I want to mention a handful of other ingredients, usually used in small quantities, but collectively, they’re in a whole awful lot of the foods most people eat. Many of these are used in extremely small amounts in any given product, but over time I believe those small quantities can really add up.

Most of these don’t pass the Kitchen Test — but realistically, they’re also fairly trivial ingredients. The “Deliberate Exception Clause” may come into play here: If you think the “pros” of these ingredients outweigh the “cons” (however you define both of those), and want to make a deliberate exception for October, I encourage you to do so…as long as you’re doing it mindfully and in advance (not just because you want that cookie in the moment!).

50-pound sacks of Cargill's Xanthan Gum.
50-pound sacks of Cargill’s Xanthan Gum

Xanthan Gum & Guar Gum

Xanthan Gum has become one of my biggest pet peeves. You couldn’t make it at home, as it comes from a bacteria that’s been fermented on corn syrup and then extracted (good luck with figuring out how to do that!).  It’s often added to liquids because it’s good for texture — it acts as an emulsifier, but it also “relaxes” when it’s under a sheer force. That’s why you’ll find it in salad dressings and sauces — it helps keep the dressing mixed together, but when you squeeze the bottle, it relaxes to let you drizzle the dressing on top. But it seems to have made its way into so many products, that I just want to scream every time I see it on the label.

To be fair, Xanthan Gum is not necessarily harmful (though it can give some people gas and bloating), and if you’re gluten-free it can be a helpful ingredient in your baked goods.

Guar Gum, on the other hand, is made from guar beans that are dried, hulled, and ground to a fine powder.  I’m pretty sure that could be done in a home kitchen. Although it may give you gas too, strictly speaking I think it passes the kitchen test.

For more on gums, check out Dr. Jean Layton’s guest post on Xanthan Gum, Guar Gum, and Methyl Cellulose.

Natural & Artificial Flavors

Okay, this is my other big pet peeve. “Artificial Flavors” obviously don’t pass the kitchen test.  But “Natural Flavors” don’t, either! That’s because “Natural Flavors” are likely made with a variety of unnatural chemical processes, too. All that’s really required to earn the “natural” label is that the initial product they start with has to be edible.

Now, it’s possible that the “Natural Flavor” is something as benign as lemon zest (some companies may call it “flavor,” so as to protect their recipe). But we have no way of knowing. So we have to assume any “Natural Flavor” is made in a lab, and that it’s no better than the artificial kind.

For more on this, check out Erin Coates, RD, LD’s guest post on Natural & Artificial Flavors.

Sno-Kone Syrups - Natural & Artificial Flavors
The “Genuine Sno-Kone” paper cups actually say “Pure-Wholesome-Delicious.” Sigh.

Soy Lecithin

Also incredibly common in processed foods these days, soy lecithin is something you couldn’t make at home. It’s commonly used as an emulsifier in foods to keep things in suspension. You’ll see it in most commercial chocolate bars, too, since it helps keep the cocoa butter from separating from the cocoa.

The Fooducate blog has a good overview, and the Weston A. Price Foundation goes through it in much more detail (though I find W.A.P. to be a bit on the biased side, so do with this what you will). And here’s the Wikipedia page, which describes it as “highly processed”).

What concerns me most about lecithin is that it also seems to be in everything. It may be just fine for us, and I don’t mean to be alarmist, but when I see it in nearly every packaged product, I grow wary.


Carrageenan is a “linear sulfated polysaccharide” that is extracted from seaweed. It’s used in foods as a gelling or thickening agent. You’ll find it in most store-bought soy milks and nut milks (and a bit more famously in toothpaste). Although it’s been used since about 600 BC in China, modern Carrageenan is usually produced in a way that wouldn’t pass the kitchen test.

The Wikipedia page on carrageenan is surprisingly helpful in walking through the various production methods, and it makes for an interesting read. Personally, I’ve realized that carrageenan upsets my stomach, so I’ve been avoiding it anyway.

Corn Starch

According to my read of Wikipedia, and from previous discussion with readers, you couldn’t really make this at home. For “regular” corn starch, most of the steps you could do at home, but to finally separate everything out, you might need to a hydrocyclone or a centrifuge. To make matters even more confusing, most corn starch used in food manufacturing is “modified.”  And modified starches “are prepared by physically, enzymatically, or chemically treating the native starch.” So it sure seems like corn starch doesn’t really pass the kitchen test, either.

"This Family Take Any Baking Powder The Grocer Sells Them"
I guess they should have bought the other baking powder. (circa 1870-1900)

Baking Soda & Baking Powder

People have been using baking soda for hundred(s) of years, and although you might need to be a chemist to create it, it is such a basic ingredient — that doesn’t seem to have a downside — that it seems counter-productive to exclude it. Similarly, baking powder is simply baking soda with an added acid.

The pitfall, however, is that many of these add corn starch (usually just to keep it “powdery”). You may want to check out our discussion in the comments section with Tracy, Kirsten, and Xan before making your decision on whether or not to allow these in your diet for October.

Citric Acid & Calcium Chloride

These are ones that you’re going to have to decide for yourself. I actually keep both Citric Acid and Calcium Chloride in my house, to use when making cheese.

Citric Acid has been around a very long time, though the way it’s produced commercially today it wouldn’t pass the kitchen test.

Strictly speaking, you could make your own calcium chloride at home with limestone (or chalk) and hydrochloric or muriatic acid (!). Of course, you’re not likely to be doing that, and I daresay that doesn’t pass the “reasonable skill” threshold. Having said that, it’s also just a salt and is not particularly problematic from what I can tell.

Personally, I go with the spirit of the challenge on this one rather than the letter.  I choose to make both of these a deliberate exception, but only if they’re in foods that I consider healthy and that otherwise pass the kitchen test (in a can of beans or a block of tofu, for example).

Citric Acid under polarized light
Citric Acid under cross-polarized light, magnified 10x. Neat!

Lactic Acid

Refining lactic acid goes back to 1780, when it was first cultured from sour milk. I think Lactic Acid is probably fine — though it depends on how strict you want to be, and how they actually made it. I just found this tutorial on how to culture it at home (though she also says she doesn’t consume it herself – just uses it in her animal feed and around the barn to control odors).

So this is one more where I’ll leave it to you to decide for yourself.


We’ve been using yeast for thousands of years, and I’m convinced I could cultivate my own yeast at home, so that answers that. (Not that I would be terribly successful at it, mind you.)

Food Dyes/Colors

If it’s got an official number bestowed upon it by the government, it’s obviously not going to pass the test. There are however, many truly natural dyes that can be used, such as beet juice, so those would pass muster. (Annatto is another that is probably okay – depending on the extraction method, which, of course, won’t be on the label.)


Most preservatives aren’t going to pass the test, of course. Sadly, almost every packaged food these days will include preservatives. Even hot sauces like Huy Fong’s Sriracha (the popular one with the Rooster on the bottle) — which are highly acidic so probably don’t really need them– are using them because it extends shelf life just a little bit more. (If you’re a hot sauce addict, you may be relieved to know that Original Tabasco will pass the kitchen test. Its ingredients are just vinegar, red pepper, and salt.)

With so many ingredients out there, I’m sure I missed a bunch. If you have questions — or want to add (or correct!) anything I’ve said above — please chime in with a comment!

If you haven't taken the October Unprocessed pledge yet, please do!  And then encourage your friends to join in -- it's a lot more fun that way!

October Unprocessed

Photos used under Creative Commons License:
Flavors to be had…” © 2011 by Wayne Stratz
Sno-Kone Syrups” ©2011 by Steve Snodgrass
This family take any baking powder the grocer sells them” via Boston Public Library, 2012
Citric Acid” ©2007 by Jasper Nance


A photo of Andrew Wilder leaning into the frame and smiling, hovering over mixing bowls in the kitchen.

Welcome to Eating Rules!

Hi! My name is Andrew Wilder, and I think healthy eating doesn’t have to suck. With just three simple eating rules, we'll kickstart your journey into the delicious and vibrant world of unprocessed food.

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Heather Bee
September 26, 2014 5:47 pm

My kids seem to have upset stomachs when they eat cheese colored with annatto but not when they eat cheese without. Has anyone else experienced/heard of this? Or am I just grasping at the wrong variable?

Thanks for all of the great info. I bet this almost could have broken these into two or three posts with even more detailed info. Cheers!

Reply to  Heather Bee
September 27, 2014 12:02 am

Annatto can create IBS symptoms, it is rather common especially in children…

Reply to  Heather Bee
February 5, 2018 12:21 am

I have allergic rhinitis and asthma and annatto irritates the roof of my mouth and makes me wheezy.

april edens
September 26, 2014 3:16 pm

This was a great article that left the decision up to us if we wanted to include it in our diet rather than screaming your opinion and superimposing upon us. Well thought out!

September 26, 2014 10:51 am

This article is very confusing. It’s like you are saying to each ingredient, it can’t be made in the kitchen but in my opinion its okay to have in moderation. So do I or don’t I eat these items?

September 26, 2014 9:51 am

For Sriracha Hot Sauce lovers, the Trader Joe’s brand does not contain the preservatives that the regular store bought Sriracha does.
As for “Natural Flavors” – I understand the need to protect the formula but it really bothers me that “natural” can mean just about anything.
I need to do more research on Calcium Chloride. It doesn’t seem to be used as widely in European products. I question if there is a true need for this additive.

September 26, 2014 9:33 am

Great post. Thank you for the research. And I thought I was eating clean!!! Lecithin…carrageenan…etc.

September 26, 2014 9:18 am

When I signed up I had no idea things like my organic whole wheat bread would be a problem–soy lecithin. So my whole way of thinking about organics will change, but I will probably wind up making some exceptions for them.

October 9, 2013 10:15 am

I think caution is appropriate when stating that one particular food item causes cancer. There are some small studies that imply carrageenan to be associated in the diets of people who have stomach and colon cancer. But if you step back and consider the number of food items that it is in, it seems everyone should have stomach and colon cancer. You can also get colon cancer if you do not consume enough Vitamin D as it is a strong immunity enhancer in the gut. I think the key here is when possible avoid or reduce the amount of consumption. Some people may be more sensitive to these ingredients just as you may be allergic to peanuts and I am not. Ultimately, eating whole natural unprocessed foods is going to be much better for your health. Include all of the food categories and ensure a good balance of carbs, fat,… Read more »

October 5, 2013 3:42 pm

Okay I am officially depressed now! Ratz! Why oh why must we kill ourselves with these poisons?! I try to avoid them but man…I know they are in something whether they tell me or not! Sigh!

September 25, 2013 3:00 pm

did you see Foodbabe talk about Natural Flavors? She found out that some of the natural flavor is from beaver butt. Its on youtube. We stopped buying anything with natural flavors.

September 25, 2013 10:29 am

Thanks for this easy breakdown… I had been curious about a lot of these “ingredients”, especially xantham gum and guar gum, for a long time!