SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — Even if you spend time reading the ingredient label on a food item, chances are good there will be some ingredients that you don’t actually recognize.
In fact, sometimes it seems like you need an advanced degree in chemistry to decode some of the mysterious items listed. But if you are confused by what you see on a label, don’t worry: you are in good company.
In the United States, the choices for meals and snacks are plenty. Store shelves are filled with options for instant noodles, soft drinks or microwavable frozen entrees
Just push a button, twist a top or add hot water: they’re fast, cheap and easy.
But a lot of our favorite foods are made with ingredients or additives best described as “bizarre.”
A recent survey of roughly 1,500 consumers may shed some light. The study was done by Label Insight, a digital company that uses big data and advocates for better food label transparency.
The study found many consumers are confused about the very elements that make up the food products they buy and eat.
In a month’s time, 8 out of 10 Americans will eat or drink something made or processed with an ingredient they know absolutely nothing about.
With the help of Medical Doctor and Professor John Swartzberg of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, KPIX 5 assembled a smorgasbord of popular foods that all contain what some might consider a weird ingredient.
We asked Juliet and her daughter Rosie to play along in our game of “What is it?” The mom and daughter team was enthusiastic to see if they knew the ingredients.
“Well, let’s start with the healthy stuff and then work our way down to dessert,” said Rosie.
First up for scrutiny: a tub of shredded cheese. Juliet read the label
On the ingredient label, she found powdered cellulose and was puzzled about what it is and why it’s in shredded cheese.
Dr. Swartzberg explained.
“Well, cellulose is a plant product and it’s made from a variety of plants, including — of course — wood,” said the doctor.
“Whoa!” exclaimed Juliet with surprise.
Cellulose is added into shredded cheese to keep the cheese from clumping together.
Dr. Swartzberg said it’s an ingredient that has no nutritional value, but adds weight to the product.
“The more cellulose you put in — which is very cheap to make — the more money you make,” said the public health expert.
Next, we asked Juliet and Rosie to consider an array of frozen burritos, breads, pizza and some snacks that are made with or contain crusts or breads.
Juliet picked up a frozen snack box and perused the label. “I’m curious what’s in there,” she said.
All the examples contain an ingredient called L-cysteine.
When asked if she knew what that was, Juliet replied, “I have no idea.”
Dr. Swartzberg explained L-cysteine is an amino acid, but not just any amino acid.
This particular amino acid is made from human hair or duck feathers.
“That’s gross,” sighed Juliet.
L-cysteine is used as a dough conditioner to improve the texture of the product. It softens the bread’s texture. Sometimes it is not even listed as “L-cysteine” on labels. It may simply show up as “dough conditioner” or “reaction flavor”.
Next, we brought a bottle of salad dressing to the table. It was creamy Italian dressing. On the label, a potpourri of additives that make the dressing very thick, stable, and emulsified including xanthan gum, propylene glycol alginate and potassium sorbate, as well as calcium disodium EDTA.
Xanthan gum is typically produced when a sugar is fermented by a bacteria. Propylene glycol alginate is derived from kelp. Potassium sorbate and calcium disodium EDTA are both preservatives.
In a single cup of noodles, we found at least six ingredients that we did not recognize: disodium guanylate, disodium inosinate, disodium succinate, polyglycerol esters of fatty acids, potassium carbonate and sodium carbonate.
All are additives that perform a variety of tasks including flavor enhancement and emulsifiers. Some were surprising.
Disodium inosinate is used as a flavor enhancer and is generally produced from meat, including fish. What about polyglycerol esters of fatty acids? It is also an emulsifier made mainly from plant origins, but can contain fats of animal origins as well.
Next on the list: an ingredient found in red juices and some yogurt.
Rosie read the list and stopped at “colored with carmine.”
Neither she nor her mother had any idea what carmine is. Dr. Swartzberg stepped in to help.
He explained how at least two to three centuries ago in the Americas, the indigenous peoples discovered that they could make a beautiful natural, red dye by boiling cochineal insects and grinding them up.
Next: Granulated sugar. What makes it so sparkly white?
“Is it bleach?” asked Juliet. “I don’t know.”
Nope. Some brands use charred animal bones or “bone char.”
Hearing that description, Rosie covered her ears and emitted a loud moan.
“It’s nice to see this, a beautiful white sugar, but when you think about where it comes from…” said Swartzberg.
Heating bones at very high temperatures creates bone char. This bone char — which one manufacturer calls “natural charcoal” — is used to bleach and filter refined white cane sugar.
Not all refineries use bone char in their cane sugar refining process. For example, Domino Foods owns and operates five cane sugar refineries in the U.S.
Of the five facilities, only two refineries — the one in Chalmette, Louisiana, and the Bay Area refinery located in Crockett — use bone char for the de-colorization and de-ashing of sugar liquors.
The company said the refined sugar products from the two refineries do not contain any actual impurities from the natural charcoal. The three remaining sugar refineries located in Baltimore, Maryland, South Bay, Florida, and Yonkers, New York, are designated bone char free facilities.
If you buy organic sugar, it is not processed with bone char and maintains more of an ivory or slightly light yellow color.
Another ingredient that is derived from animal products is gelatin.
Swartzberg explained how it is made from animal skins, tendons, ligaments and bones.
“It’s sort of gross when you think about where we find gelatin,” the doctor said.
“I’m never going to look at gelatin the same way,” replied Rosie.
To keep salt from caking up, some brands mix in powdered sand or limestone. It’s listed as silicon dioxide or calcium silicate. Calcium silicate is derived from limestone or diatomaceous earth.
To clarify some white wines and some beers, some makers use a special filter called isinglass.
Isinglass is a collagen. But where does it come from?
“It’s made from bladders of bony fish,” explained Swartzberg.
Juliet expressed her displeasure by making a face.
The organ controls buoyancy in these fish.
On a bright note for vegans who love beer but don’t like the use of any animal products the processing of the beverage, some beer manufacturers including Guinness no longer use isinglass in its products.
The last products the survey looked at were little jelly beans and other shiny, sweet candies. On the label, one ingredient stands out: “confectioners glaze.”
When asked if she knew what it was exactly, Juliet replied, “Sounds like a sugar glaze bakers would put on say, donuts or something?”
Nope. Confectioner’s glaze is shellac.
Juliet gasped when she heard where it came from. Rosie laughed.
“Shellac is made from specific insects in Asia,” explained Doctor Swartzberg. The sticky substance is derived from the secretions of the female “kerria lacca,” which is an insect that is native to Thailand.
These bizarre ingredients are all perfectly legal to use in food. The US FDA classifies them as well as thousands of other additives as “Generally Recognized As Safe” or “GRAS” for short.
After the extensive quizzing about food ingredients, Juliet and Rosie told KPIX 5 that they are going to steer clear of additives that they don’t recognize on food labels.
As for the experience?
“It reinforces my preference for avoiding processed foods,” concluded Juliet.