Not all food additives are created equal. We talk a lot about potentially harmful ingredients in our food, but some food additives sound a lot scarier than they are.
Real talk: FDA does a terrible job policing what’s in our food. One expert on food additives commented that “the system is fundamentally broken” when it comes to deciding which ingredients are generally recognizes as safe (GRAS).
Has that broken system put you off of any and all food additives? Don’t let GRAS get you down! Not all food additives are harmful to our health. Some food additives sound bad, but the ones below have no known negative health impacts at low levels.
These food additives aren’t terrible for you, but they’re often accompanied by other ingredients that are bad for our health. If you’re looking for a list of food additives to avoid, the Dirty Dozen of Food Additives from Environmental Working Group is a great place to start.
I’m not advocating for processed foods here by any means. I’m all about cooking from scratch whenever possible, but we also live in the real world where there isn’t always time to cook every single meal from whole food ingredients. When you do go for convenience food, you need to be able to parse those blocks of ingredients. Which food additives are safe? Which ones aren’t?
6 Food Additives that Sound Scary but Aren’t
1. gellan gum – This is a gelling agent, which might still sound scary. But wait! Gellan gum is what’s known as a bacterial capsular polysaccharide made from fermented plants. It’s similar to agar agar, a seaweed powder, and it’s even allowed as an ingredient in the USDA National Organic Program.
What it’s for: Gellan gum is a thickener and stablizer. Companies also use it in place of gelatin to create vegetarian and vegan gummy candy.
2. guar gum – Another gum! This one is actually a form of soluble fiber made from guar beans, and it’s safe in small amounts. The small amounts bit is key, because at high dosages, guar gum can damage your esophagus. That was a side effect discovered in the 80s when doctors began prescribing guar gum tablets for weight loss, because it has laxative properties. A little guar gum in your ice cream isn’t going to be a problem, though, because the amount you’re eating is miniscule.
What it’s for: This food additive is a thickener that also prevents ice crystals from forming on frozen food. It’s used to make ice cream creamy, and you have probably seen it on many other processed food labels.
3. xanthan gum – What can I say? Gums are in a lot of things, and there are a lot of types of gums. Xanthan gum is safe at the low levels used in food. But! It is derived from corn or soy, so if you’re looking to avoid GMOs, you want to make sure you’re choosing a certified organic or non-GMO product. Some folks are allergic to xanthan gum, but as long as you don’t have an allergy, you’re good to go.
What it’s for: Xanthan gum is in many gluten free products, because it has binding properties similar to wheat gluten.
4. lethicin (aka soy lecithin) – Lecithin is a fat found in small amounts in some processed foods, and it’s usually derived from eggs or soy. Look for non-gmo or organic, soy lecithin since 90% of the soy produced in the U.S. is genetically modified. If you don’t have a soy or egg allergy, lecithin is safe. In fact! When I first gave birth to my son, my lactation consultant recommended lecithin supplements to help alleviate clogged ducts.
What it’s for: Lecithin acts as a stabilizer in bread, prevents products like salad dressings from separating, and acts as a preservative
5. dextrose – In moderation, this corn sugar isn’t so bad. Some athletes even use it as a supplement to help them recover after training. Since it’s made from corn, which is usually genetically modified, look for an organic or non-GMO certification on products containing dextrose.
What it’s for: Dextrose is an added sugar that unlike table sugar (sucrose), contains no fructose. It’s also sweeter and more neutral than many added sugars.
6. ascorbyl palmitate – This is basically a less-nutritious form of vitamin C. When it breaks down in your body, you absorb some vitamin C and digest the palmitate that’s left over. Palmitate is a fat, but the amount of ascorbyl palmitate in food is negligible.
What it’s for: Ascorbyl palmitate increases shelf life and stabilizes food color. It also adds a small amount of vitamin C, so it can act as an added vitamin.
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