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

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.

Yeast

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.)

Preservatives

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

 

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Stacey
Stacey
September 27, 2015 12:56 pm

I’m new to unprocessed foods and making an attempt to greatly reduce our animal product consumption. Many butter recipes call for soy lecithin, which I’m reading is out. What about sunflower lecithin? Does it pass the kitchen test and can it be substituted for the soy type?

EL
EL
September 24, 2015 8:45 am

I agree that one should make their own decisions about these issues and the important thing is to get us to think. With that in mind, I bring up an issue for thought: I noticed that you state that corn starch would not fit the kitchen test because in the last step it has to be centrifuged. Bearing in mind, that I simply do not like cornstarch (I hate it in pie for instance), I kind of feel that this is quibbling and certainly has no bearing on how healthy (or unhealthy) it is (isn’t that the point?). But with that said, why do I think of it as quibbling. Let me list a couple of ways in which we use centrifugation in our everyday lives: 1. If you do laundry in a typical washing machine, that is how you spin your clothes to get water out of them. 2.… Read more »

Tanya Walker
September 24, 2015 8:43 am

Every time I re-read this I get depressed with our society.

Sandi
Sandi
September 24, 2015 8:32 am

With so many different ingredients in things out there, how do you figure out which ones bother you, I.e. Penelope and citric acid? Just keep trying different things? It’s so frustrating. Maybe October will help me. FYI pretty sure it drives my husband crazy as I try to figure this stuff out. ?

Sandy D
Sandy D
September 24, 2015 9:37 am
Reply to  Sandi

Well, it’s “keep trying different things” in a deliberate and systematic manner – it’s called an “elimination diet.”
Start with foods you KNOW have never caused any trouble (most allergists seem to recommend chicken, rice, maybe one vegetable such as carrots) for a few days. Make sure your digestive system is working on those foods (there is no food to which absolutely no-one is sensitive or allergic!). Add the food you’re curious about, and see what happens. Repeat. If the added food is something with a preservative or unknown flavoring, save the label and try 2 different brands, separately, with a few days in between.
Yes, making everything reasonably possible from scratch and avoiding pre-prepared foods will help, because you can control ingredients, including seasoning. (We recently did this for my husband, and discovered that he is intolerant of potatoes.)

Sandy D
Sandy D
September 24, 2015 9:39 am
Reply to  Sandy D

P.S. and keep a food diary. Seriously. Memory is the second thing to go . . . .

Crystal
Crystal
October 18, 2014 10:38 pm

Does anyone have any information on high oleic oils? I hear they took over the job of furthering shelf life from hydrogenated oils after they got such a bad rep. Does it pass the kitchen test and are there any health benefits or risks to high oleic oils?

Megan
Megan
October 2, 2014 3:47 pm

One other “ingredient” I’ve been checking into is “Locust Bean Gum” (aka Carob Bean Gum). While it is not made from locusts of the 10 plagues variety, I did find a source that says the first step in its production can be a process that uses the caustic substance sulfuric acid (also used in drain cleaner!) to separate hulls from seeds of the carob beans. The same source said the separation can be done by roasting instead, but as you said with so many of these ingredients we have no clue what the production process was. I was disappointed to see that my favorite organic, “all natural”, “no preservatives” vanilla Greek yogurt now uses LBG in their formula. They also upped the sugar content by 7 g recently even though the WHO is recommending that people reduce their sugar consumption. (not a move I would have expected this brand to… Read more »

EL
EL
September 24, 2015 8:34 am
Reply to  Megan

You might try calling the yogurt company to see if they use LBG that is processed with sulfuric acid or roasted. The roasting process would be okay. . .

Or you might try using your favorite yogurt as an initial starter to make your own yogurt. Then you would know what is in it.

Sara
September 24, 2015 8:51 am
Reply to  Megan

If you can find it – try Brown Cow plain yogurt. Not sure about their flavors but the plain is so good (and basic). I never thought I’d actually be a fan of plain yogurt until I discovered them.

Angela
Angela
September 29, 2014 8:09 am

I’m struggling with deciding on whether or not cheese and butter are okay items. I read the bit about milk not really passing the test, but it seems like cheese and butter are part of several of the recipes listed on the site. Any one have any insight/advice?

Kristina
Kristina
September 29, 2014 9:49 am
Reply to  Angela

From what I’ve gathered, cheese and butter are ok, at least from the milk ingredient unless it’s ultra-pasturized or skimmed. The problem with milk is homogenization. So if the ingredient on cheese just says “milk,” I think it should be ok. At least that’s what I’ve been going with. If someone has a different opinion on this, please share. 🙂

Sara
September 24, 2015 8:52 am
Reply to  Angela

Try KerryGold butter. It’s the best we have found for minimal processing.

Rivka Strom
Rivka Strom
September 29, 2014 7:45 am

Knowing where to draw a personal line comes with product knowledge. Fruit Fresh (citric acid) can be replaced with lemon or lime juice in the canning process. Baking soda and vinegar not only freshen your water pipes but clean your hair as well.

The question is levels of acceptance.

Rivka

Jory
September 28, 2014 6:46 pm

What are the thoughts on tamari? The ingredients are listed as: water, salt, soybeans and alcohol. It is stated that alcohol is the preservative. While I haven’t personally made it, people can make alcohol at home so I’m wondering what Andrew, and the rest of the community, thinks about this. Thank you!

penelope
September 26, 2014 11:40 pm

thanks for this post, you are doing such important work! I would like to disagree about a few things you mention, most importantly citric acid, as it is used to hide the use of MSG see list on this site:http://www.truthinlabeling.org/hiddensources.html . I am not sure if the citric acid you buy in the supermarket is the same but I have found I react to canned goods containing citric acid and have stopped using these products.
regarding Calcium Chloride, to the best of my understanding it is used to help maximize curds in cheese making and often used to allow one a reasonable cheese from an inferior milk source…so I avoid these as well not easy as most cheese makers today use it.
on a general note, it is interesting to see what else is in the list of “hidden sources of MSG” on the link …!