An Honest Look At 20 Common Ingredients Found In Processed Foods

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It’s no secret that many of our common grocery store staples come with a long list of ingredients. While bread, for example, might only require a few ingredients when homemade, a loaf of sandwich bread from the store will often contain significantly more to keep it shelf-stable.

We’re not here to say that you should always bake your own bread ― we get that’s not really an option in most of our modern lives. But we do think you should know what’s showing up on your ingredient labels.

Here are 20 common ingredients that we bet are in your pantry right now (assuming that you’ve got a well-stocked pantry).

  1. Sodium Phosphate is a sodium salt of phosphoric acid and is a common additive in processed meat. It helps keep meat moist, which is one quality a lot of people want in their ham. It can also be used as a texturizer, an emulsifier or a leavening agent.
  2. Sodium Erythorbate is the sodium salt of erythorbic acid. It is a food additive used to keep food fresh.
  3. Sodium Nitrite is used as a preservative to fight the growth of harmful bacteria. Chances are you’ve probably heard about sodium nitrite and how you’re supposed to stay away from it. Nitrites have been linked to cancer.
  4. Potassium Lactate is a mineral salt that is used as a flavoring agent and a humectant, which means it helps food retain moisture.
  5. Sodium Diacetate is a salt of acetic acid. It is a food preservative used as an antimicrobial agent.
  6. Dextrose is a simple sugar derived from corn. It is used widely in packaged foods as a sweetener.
  7. Corn Syrup is an ingredient we all know by now. It’s a sweetener made from the starch of corn that shows up in a lot of our food because it’s cheap, which means we’re probably eating more sugar than we want to think.
  8. Xanthan Gum is fermented by plant-loving bacteria ― for example, it aids the bacteria that grows on broccoli. It also happens to be a very popular food additive, showing up in foods from salad dressings to baked goods. It’s often used as a thickening and emulsifying agent.
  9. Polysorbate 80 is used as an emulsifier in foods and cosmetics. It’s sometimes added to soft serve to prevent milk proteins from completely coating the fat droplets. This allows the soft serve to bind and locks air into the mixture.
  10. Calcium Sulfate is an acidity regulator and flour-stabilizing agent. That means it shows up in pastas and cereals. It’s also used to add calcium to foods, such as tofu.
  11. Sodium Benzoate is the sodium salt of benzoic acid. It inhibits growth of bacteria, mold and yeast ― and shows up in anything from sodas to pickles.
  12. Dimethyl Dicarbonate is a chemical used to preserve beverages. If you like wine, you’re getting your fill of this preservative.
  13. Butylated Hydroxyanisole, also known as BHA, is a food additive that the National Institutes of Health says is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen. It shows up in a host of foods, including chewing gum and potato chips.
  14. Mono- and diglycerides come from fatty acids. They’re used as another emulsifier. They help combine ingredients containing fat with ingredients containing water (because the two don’t normally merge well on their own).
  15. Carrageenan is a carbohydrate extracted from red seaweed. It’s used for its gelling, stabilizing and thickening properties. And it is found in products from eggnog to soy milk to infant formulas to toothpaste.
  16. Guar gum is made from the endosperm of the guar bean. It’s used as a thickening agent. The use of it in diet pills was banned in the 1980s because it was dangerous, but small amounts of it have been established as safe.
  17. Cellulose gum comes from the cell walls of plants such as wood pulp and cottonseeds. It’s a thickener that is commonly used in the food industry and adds to the mouthfeel and texture of a product.
  18. Carnauba wax is made from the leaves of the palm tree. It’s used to provide a glossy, waxen sheen to foods like fruit chews, just like it does for cars (in automobile waxes), shoes (in the polish), dental floss, surf boards and floors.
  19. Yellow 5, also known as tartrazine, is most famously responsible for the yellow color of Mountain Dew. It’s a synthetic yellow dye that was once believed to negatively affect the sperm count in men, and is now believed to exacerbate children with ADHD.
  20. Red 40 is an azo food dye that can cause allergic reactions in some people.

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