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Secret Ingredients

Uncovering the mysteries hiding in your favorite snacks.

Illustration by Esme

Illustration by Esme

It’s another full, normal, ridiculously busy day. You get up at 6 AM (this, in itself, is enough of an accomplishment to warrant going back to bed). You go to school, take a math test, present your biology project, and maybe head to basketball practice/play rehearsal/a tutoring session. You clatter into the kitchen the second you get home, throw your backpack on the floor, and open the fridge. You have tons—TONS—of homework, but you’re STARVING and you need a snack immediately before you can even think about doing anything else.

You grab a package of sugar, unbleached enriched flour (wheat flour, niacin, reduced iron, thiamine, mononitrate {Vitamin B1}, riboflavin {Vitamin B2}, folic acid), high oleic canola oil and/or palm oil and/or canola oil, and/or soybean oil, cocoa (processed with alkali), high-fructose corn syrup, cornstarch, leavening (baking soda and/or calcium phosphate), salt, soy lecithin, vanillin—an artificial flavor, chocolate.

You pour a glass of milk, and stir in some high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, water, cocoa, sugar, potassium sorbate, mono- and diglycerides, xanthan gum, polysorbate 60, vanillin, artificial flavor—if your mom keeps it in the house.

And you maybe grab a handful of corn, vegetable oil, maltodextrin, salt, tomato powder, cornstarch, lactose, whey, skim milk, corn syrup solids, monosodium glutamate, sugar, tomato powder, onion powder, sugar, monosodium glutamate, garlic powder, cheese, dextrose, malic acid, buttermilk, sodium acetate, sodium caseinate, artificial color (including Red 40, Blue 1, and Yellow 5), natural and artificial flavors, spice, citric acid, disodium inosinate, and disodium guanylate. You know, to balance out the sweetness.

Crunch crunch crunch. Mmm. Doesn’t that sound good? What’s wrong? You hate snack food or something?

I love snack food. Pretty much all of it. I especially love Oreos, chocolate milk made with Hershey’s syrup, and Cool Ranch Doritos, which are, in order, the components of this particular after-school snack. These foods have a few things in common—they’re the edibles Most Likely to Be Found in a Really Good Snack Cupboard, they’re PROFOUNDLY DELICIOUS, and they’re processed food.

People talk a lot about processed food these days. We hear about it all the time, and never really in a good light. But what is processed food, anyway? What’s all the fuss about?

Processed food just means food that’s been modified in any way that alters its original form. If you cut up a banana and put it in your freezer to make smoothies with later, you’re processing it. Food is processed for lots of different reasons—our orange juice is pasteurized, for instance, which means it’s heated to kill harmful bacteria that might be lurking in it. Processing can be a good thing.

When the media talks about processed food, though, they’re often referring in a negative way to food that’s been through a LOT of treatments—food that has been studied, tinkered with, and includes freaky-sounding or difficult-to-pronounce ingredients; food that has extra chemicals and/or additives that some people have questions about. What are those extra chemicals? Why are they there? How does something as simple as chocolate syrup have more than three ingredients—cocoa, sugar, and a dash of deliciousness? I mean, really: what’s high-fructose corn syrup, and why the hell is it the first ingredient in my Hershey’s syrup?

High-fructose corn syrup is a sweetener made from corn. It is even sweeter than granulated or cane sugar, and it is everywhere—it’s in your Coke and Pepsi and Mountain Dew. It’s in your Capri Sun. It’s in your Froot Loops and jam and ketchup. It’s in so much of our food—even food that we don’t think should be sweet, like soft white bread.

As for why it’s there: well, like many things in our society, it mostly boils down to dolla dolla bills, y’all. I know this will come as a major shock, and I hope you’re sitting down for this, but most food companies tend not to be exactly super interested in our health and well-being so much as they are in making money. (Yes. I know. You’re stunned.) And one of the best ways to make money is to create a product that people not only crave, but that their desire for is almost insatiable—and to keep manufacturing costs as low as possible.

Enter high-fructose corn syrup (among many other ingredients), which is much cheaper than sugar. God knows I love me some Coke and cookies, but nutritionists have been down on the ingredient for years. While it is FDA approved, some studies have tried to establish a link between the syrup and some types of diabetes and heart disease, but the conclusions are often hotly contested. It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the Corn Refiners Association of America takes issue with such findings.

Once I dug in online, I realized that high-fructose corn syrup is just the tip of the chemically altered iceberg. I wanted to know more about some of the mystery ingredients I see on food packages every day. Now y’all, I’m not saying “DON’T EAT PROCESSED FOOD EVER” and I’m not saying “ALL FOOD MANUFACTURERS WANT YOU SICK AND UNHEALTHY,” but I do think it’s good to know a little bit about some of the ingredients we put in our mouths on the regular. So here we have a li’l list of some really common processed-food ingredients, what they’re used for, and what rumors surround them. Let’s be clear here: ALL of these ingredients have been cleared by the FDA, meaning they are all considered safe to eat, no matter how many syllables they have. (But let’s also remember that the FDA has approved some ingredients that are banned elsewhere.)

1. Red No. 40

What it is: One of the most common dyes in food, used to make it more colorful, and therefore tastier-looking. It’s made from…petroleum. Delicious.
Found in: candy (M&Ms, Starburst), cereal (Lucky Charms, Reese’s Peanut Butter Puffs), drinks (Mountain Dew Code Red, some varieties of Hi-C), drugs (cherry-flavored NyQuil), and snacks (Nutri-Grain bars, Jell-O, Little Debbie Swiss Rolls).
Rumor mill: Scientific opinion is conflicted, but there are health advocates out there who worry that artificial dyes might be increasing hyperactivity and aggression in children who are sensitive to them. Yet another reason not to share your candy with your little brother.

2. Maltodextrin

What it is: A lightly sweet or almost flavorless food additive in the form of a powder. It’s made from rice, corn, wheat, or potatoes, and it’s used to thicken foods.
Found in: You name it. Sports drinks, salad dressings, soups, Splenda. It’s everywhere.
Rumor mill: Maltodextrin by itself is generally considered harmless, unless you are allergic, have celiac disease, or are gluten-intolerant (some maltodextrin is made from wheat).

3. Aspartame

What it is: An artificial sweetener used in “diet” foods to provide a sweet flavor with less calories. Fun fact: after aspartame is ingested, it breaks down into methanol and then formaldehyde.
Found in: diet soda, breath mints, gum, sugar substitutes like Equal and NutraSweet, and many products advertised as “sugar free”
Rumor mill: Aspartame courts a lot of controversy. It has a baaaad reputation. People have said it is responsible for maladies ranging from headaches to cancer, but scientific studies have not supported this claim. And as for the methanol/formaldehyde: this effect is not limited to foods with aspartame. Citrus fruits like oranges and grapefruits break down similarly.

4. Monopotassium phosphate

What it is: a type of salt that can be quickly absorbed by the body
Found in: Gatorade, Powerade, and non-dairy creamer
Rumor mill: No one appears to object to this additive on health-related grounds. It’s a multisyllabic ingredient that just looks like it might be something weird.

5. Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)

What it is: a salty-tasting flavor enhancer
Found in: Many delicious snacks, like Doritos, Cheetos, and McDonald’s french fries. Almost everything at KFC has MSG in it. Certain flavors of Pringles, nearly all Campbell’s soups, Marmite, Lipton Instant soup mix.
Rumor mill: MSG is a hot-button issue—many people claim it gives them headaches and makes them dizzy. There is no definitive proof online that MSG is unsafe, but I can sure find online groups that think it’s the devil. Restaurateur David Chang has a LOT to say about what he believes is the defamation of MSG.

6. Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil/hydrogenated vegetable oil

What it is: fats that have been cooked at a very high heat with added hydrogen. They’re used to extend shelf life in foods and be a cheaper replacement for butter and lard. These are what are known as “trans fats.”
Found in: margarine, cake mixes, Bisquick, fast food (french fries again), some TV dinners
Rumor mill: No rumors this time—excessive consumption of trans fats can lead to clogged arteries, heart disease, heart attacks, and strokes if consumed on a regular basis. Our bodies don’t know how to process trans fats. Trans fats lower good cholesterol and raise bad cholesterol, and everyone (science, the government, consumers) agrees on that. For once. That’s why nearly every tasty-looking product at the grocery store that doesn’t have any trans fats will LOUDLY advertise this fact. However! A little bit isn’t going to lead to all of these side effects, and most of us only get a little bit, thanks to so many companies completely doing away with the ingredient.

Food is fascinating. When I was digging around online, I started finding all kinds of weird facts about the stuff I eat every day. For instance:

  • Coconut water was once used, in an emergency, as an intravenous saline solution for a man in the Solomon Islands.
  • Nutmeg is extremely poisonous if injected into the bloodstream. (Who discovered this? Why were they injecting themselves with nutmeg? I’m at a loss.)
  • The average fast-food hamburger contains meat from many, many different cows. (Possibly in the hundreds.) I need to unlearn this fact.
  • Worcestershire sauce is made of whole anchovies that have been aged for 18 months inside vinegar-filled wooden tanks. (Also known as: what the hell?)
  • Altoids have pork-derived gelatin in them. Tell your vegan friends.
  • Coca-Cola originally had cocaine in it (a rumored nine milligrams). The cocaine was removed in 1903.

My research led me into some strange territory. (I had no idea, for instance, what I was getting into when I dove into the world of aspartame.) There are a lot of worried people out there, many with legitimate health concerns and a few with ideas that border on conspiracy theories. Some are so against/freaked-out by additives and chemicals that they won’t touch anything that didn’t come out of their own garden with a 10-foot pole. And it is kind of scary that we don’t really know what we’re eating all the time, but personally, unless you have a serious or life-threatening allergy, I don’t think getting obsessed about it is the answer. There are some processed foods that make me really, really happy, and I think happiness-making is a valuable quality in food. I think the key here is moderation—y’know, we shouldn’t eat Oreos after each meal, but a handful after school once in a while? You’re gonna be fine. I don’t want to demonize all food that is not raw kale, but then, our health depends in large part on what we put in our mouths. Knowledge of food, nutrition, and ingredients gives you the power to make informed choices, and making informed choices is important…even if the only informed choice that I make when I see Cool Ranch Doritos is “GIMME.” ♦

45 Comments

  • byzanthia March 26th, 2013 3:13 PM

    Fun fact, nutmeg gives you what has been referred to as “the runs trip”, as in you have horribly digestive issues if you eat a couple of spoonfuls at once and you also can hallucinate!

  • rosiesayrelax March 26th, 2013 3:38 PM

    When I ate some American sweets my sister brought back from New York, my head felt like it was gonna explode. And Hershey’s Kisses taste awful. I guess that’s because British sweets don’t have all the colourants and stuff, my body was just NOT used to it.

    http://rosieandthewolf.blogspot.co.uk

    • Lea March 26th, 2013 4:47 PM

      I knooow they don’t taste like chocolate !

      • ruby March 26th, 2013 5:48 PM

        That’s so true! This American sweet-shop opened in my town but I find the sweets taste really weird…Dairy Milk chocolate is so much nicer (:

        • Molly Kerkham March 28th, 2013 4:00 PM

          Ditto! My friends and I were so excited when an american sweet shop opened in our city, but most of the sweets we bought tasted so strange… no wonder my friend’s american cousin raves about british sweets ad asks her to bring them over for her…

    • GlitterKitty March 26th, 2013 6:41 PM

      I’ve heard this too. I’m Canadian but when my British friend came to summer camp here she said the ketchup tasted really weird (and since it’s summer camp ketchup pretty much goes on everything). Apparently there are a lot of chemical additives that are banned in the UK but okay in Canada and the US. But British chocolate does taste 10000x better even to me.

    • Maddy March 26th, 2013 6:59 PM

      Nah, I’m American and I don’t like Hershey’s Kisses. Please don’t think that we all eat that all the time or think it’s “quality food”.

  • azultardis March 26th, 2013 4:08 PM

    I study food industries and this is true, specially aspartame can be very dangerous,some people can’t break it down so it can cause several health issues, headaches, your liver and kidneys might stop working, it can be found on citrics but is not as dangerous when is by itself,that’s why in many countries some gum brands are banned

    • modaboutyouu April 1st, 2013 1:46 AM

      Are you referring to phenylketonuria? Hospitals usually test for this with every newborn because of it’s severe effects in phenylketonurics. Aspartame contains phenylalanine and people with phenylketonurics do not possess the enzyme to break down the phenylalanine. As such, it can cause severe mental retardation and other atrocious effects, but now there is a lot of awareness for it. It is also important to note that Splenda, Stevia, and Aspartame are all very different and Aspartame is the only one that can affect phenylketonurics.

      I also think it’s important (as Krista said) to not freak out on some of this. Some food labels may sounds scary, but just because it has a long, mysterious name does not mean it is artificial and “bad for you.” For example, the first ingredient in the Oreos is unbleached enriched wheat flour and in paratheses are a TON of essential vitamins listed! Not that I’m trying to be an advocate for junk food (I’m not, I swear!!), but this is a good thing! First, it says “UNbleached” — beware, many breads use bleach in their flour. Second, all of these vitamins you must get from your diet (meaning essential) because your body does not make it on its own. Without enough of these vitamins, your body can develop many different diseases.

      I really loved this article, Krista. You did a fantastic job about raising awareness in a nonjudgemental way. My dad and stepmom have shoved their seriously freaked-out organic-raw-nosugar diets literally down my throat, and it’s nice to hear something in a friendly way. Thank you!

  • Sav Fersner March 26th, 2013 4:15 PM

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR WRITING/PUBLISHING THIS!
    It really freaks me out how little people know about where our food comes from these days.
    If anyone’s interested in some pretty good related reading, check out Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
    Life changing.

  • Olivia March 26th, 2013 4:18 PM

    Awesome article. I’m so glad we touched on this!

  • GorillazFangirl March 26th, 2013 4:43 PM

    I’m super allergic to MSG. If I eat it I get a horrible reaction which includes a burning rash and an insatiable need to lick my bright red lips, which in turns causes me to lick em more. Sooo I have to watch what I eat, basically cutting out all yummy savory snacks, sauces and garnishes.

  • Lea March 26th, 2013 4:45 PM

    Apparently, too much trans fat has repercussions on your mood, it can make you feel anxious/depressed.
    I find that cooking really helps on the food subject because you become more aware of what you eat!
    Although, I think that if I went to the States I’d just lose it and live on junk food because the thing just fascinates me. So much, so many colours, so weird.

  • wallflower152 March 26th, 2013 5:17 PM

    One time my mom put a hot dog on the antenna of my car as a prank (love her) and I just decided to leave it there. This was last January and it stayed there til June and it didn’t disintegrate, it just shrunk a little. This is the stuff we put in our bodies. :O

  • Typical 90s child March 26th, 2013 5:40 PM

    What’s sad is that even if you were to live off of only raw kale from your own garden…more likely than not, it was grown from Monsanto seeds :/

    • jenaimarley March 26th, 2013 6:14 PM

      I don’t know about more likely than not, but I totally thank you for making that point. I think with all the discussion of vegetarianism etc. people often equate not eating meat with automatically living a life better for people/animals/the environment which doesn’t take into consideration the soy (etc.) for which awful companies like Monsanto exploit people and land.

      • Typical 90s child March 27th, 2013 6:45 PM

        Very true.
        The reason I chose the words “more likely than not” is because so many people who do decide to grow their own veggies often buy them at their local nursery or places like Lowes, Target or even Walmart and sadly most of those are from Monsanto seeds. Even seed packages like Burpee, etc… are now from Monsanto, so it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid. A lot of people want to believe they’re eating better/healthier but can’t be bothered to do their research. The only way to hope you might be getting something decent is by researching the nursery you get your plants or seeds from, and hope they’re telling the truth.
        All of that being said…I’m definitely a junk foodie ;)

    • stelliform March 26th, 2013 6:15 PM

      I thought this too when I read that. Ugh. :( It’s so sad that wholly healthy foods are so hard to come by!

  • stelliform March 26th, 2013 6:14 PM

    Great article. I loved the balance between honest information, humor, and genuine opinion on the true effect snack foods have on our overall health. I also cracked up at the comment about Worcestershire sauce: “…made of whole anchovies that have been aged for 18 months inside vinegar-filled wooden tanks. (Also known as: what the hell?)” Thanks for writing this!

  • jenaimarley March 26th, 2013 6:21 PM

    Thank you so much for this.
    I’ve been interning with a grassroots organization in an extremely underserved community in Philadelphia that focuses on food sovereignty, community gardening, and education! I was actually just working today on health/nutrition fact sheets and coming up with recipes to share with the community cooking class tomorrow!

    But as a person who is very conscious about my food choices, I do want to thank you for saying that happiness is a valuable quality of food. I think we should enjoy eating consciously (thinking about ourselves, others, animals, and the environment) but that we should also make sure to derive happiness from our food and not let restrictions (self-imposed or otherwise) pump our bodies with the hormones of guilt that are perhaps just as carcinogenic as the (toxic?) additives mentioned above.

  • puffling March 26th, 2013 6:50 PM

    There’s a really interesting documentary called King Corn that is about high fructose corn syrup, and capitalism and the food industry. I highly recommend it!

    Here’s the link to watch it on netflix: http://movies.netflix.com/WiMovie/King_Corn/70080822?trkid=2361637

  • llamalina March 26th, 2013 7:37 PM

    i love this article! you should do one about foods that people think are vegetarian, but have meat in them, like hot cheetos or nutella.

    • lxmldrt March 27th, 2013 9:37 AM

      OMG NOOO NUTELLA WHY??????

  • Moxx March 26th, 2013 9:13 PM

    I think about this and it makes me so sad, how we have actually pretty much sabotaged food for humans along with our relationship to it, which is crumbling. I want to do all I can to help.

  • Elva March 26th, 2013 10:14 PM

    Cool article. Interesting to mention that most corn in the US and Canada (not sure about other countries) is GM or “genetically-modified”- which is another process I think we should be extremely weary of.

  • maggie Carol March 26th, 2013 10:20 PM

    Super great arrival learned so much !

  • book_kitty March 26th, 2013 10:21 PM

    Great article! I am vegeterian and try to eat healthy, organic, local, chemical-free stuff, but it’s hard. :(

    Would also like to mention that Carageenan, which is made from seaweed, at first seems healthy (seaweed = healthy, no?) but is actually a carcinogen, meaning it causes cancer. This appears in lie 95% of ice cream and plenty of non-dairy ice creams and milks too.

  • Meriel March 26th, 2013 10:29 PM

    the thing about oranges is they also have ethanol, which neutralizes the methanol found in them. there’s no ethanol in aspartame, so your body won’t be spared the bad stuff!

  • Chrissie March 26th, 2013 11:48 PM

    I really just wish more politicians focused on how to fix our broken food system in america….

    • lizzyheinie March 27th, 2013 8:17 PM

      That is such a good point that I never thought of! Of course, at this point the industry is so powerful if anyone tried the corn syrup people would just snap their fingers and be like, LOBBYISTS, and then it would go nowhere… but I would totally support someone who integrated that into their platform.

  • thebrownette March 27th, 2013 12:15 AM

    as a health-conscious vegan, i think i’ve read more about food than a lot of people ever will lol. the S.A.D. makes me sad.

  • dancinginthetrees March 27th, 2013 12:15 AM

    My mother has a seizure disorder caused by prolonged exposure to black mold (not epilepsy, there’s no name for it), and while her seizures can be triggered by many things, any time she consumes MSG she has a seizure.

    that’s enough for me.

  • amayo March 27th, 2013 12:15 AM

    I’m so glad you brought up the issue of our food quality, this is something I wish people talked about more.
    Maybe in the future, articles could look at:

    -Genetically Modified (GM) foods (which are taking over the nation),
    -The evil that is Monsanto and what they’re doing to this country (the people AND the organic farmers)
    -Nitrates and all the nasty stuff in generic meat (organic, free-range, nitrate-free, etc. is the way to go!), and possibly fermented vs non-fermented soy for all the vegan/vegetarian Rookies,
    -and how just because something is labeled “natural” or “organic” doesn’t necessarily mean it’s so.

    I have a feeling a food revolution is beginning with a movement towards organic, natural, and healthier foods and it would be amazing if Rookie was one of the firsts to spread the word!

  • ironsides March 27th, 2013 2:18 AM

    i personally have MONSTROUS reactions to MSG and aspartame. i’m allergic to aspartame to the point where it makes my throat close up and i struggle to breathe. this is why it’s not okay for people to slip you a diet coke when you ask for regular, which happens to me about once a month. people tend to assume diet = automatically better, but it’s just not for everyone. and aspartame is creeping up in EVERYTHING these days. everything it’s not in usually has MSG, which triggers my chronic migraine very badly. the thing is it’s perfectly safe for MANY people to eat–no one else in my family has problems with either substance. but for me, personally, i need to avoid it like the plague. practically every salty snack with a flavor other than “plain” or “original” has MSG–pringles, doritos, cheetohs…they went from a sometimes-food to a never-food for me.

  • Mary the freak March 27th, 2013 7:08 AM

    thank you so much for this! it was very helpful.
    the worst thing I have experienced with sweets/snacks happened in our school. I have been a vegetarian for seven years, it means really much to me. And in our school they sell crisps which I had been eating every week for years. There’s meat in them, actually, in the flavors stuff. It’s an awful and disgusting thought for me that I had been eating meat. And the most awful thing is, it’s not even mentioned in the list of indegrients! They found it out in a test. It’s so mean!!

    http://birdiewearsatie.blogspot.com/

  • raftingstarlit March 27th, 2013 8:01 AM

    actually, it is not an issue, that food dye is made from petroleum. petroleum isn’t a specific type of chemical- it is a mix of many type of alkanes with different carbon numbers. after processing petroleum these chemicals can be used for various things. They are very important and most organic chemicals are made from them. we shouldn’t judge a chemical based on from what it’s processed, but rather on what its effects are.
    This means, that food, which isn’t processed can be just as harmful as processed food.

  • AthenaP92 March 27th, 2013 11:23 AM

    Thank you so much for posting this. I often tell people that I dream of living in a world where food doesn’t kill you and they usually laugh, but it’s actually really sad.

  • whatever March 27th, 2013 12:49 PM

    ..this sort of ruined the pack of oreos i am eating right now, but wtvz.
    it’s interesting to see what ingredients food you wouldn’t consider “unhealthy” have. we should really be more weary of what we’re eating – and it should be made easier for us to know what we’re eating (what about that horse meat scandal?) i mean, i have a friend with a horrible allergy to msg and some processed foods weren’t putting it on the packet.. she had to go in to ICU ):
    aaanyways, i really love the illustration (◡‿◡✿)

    ☆ ゜・。。・http://rabbitandthewomp.blogspot.co.uk/・。。・゜☆

    (◡‿◡✿)

  • hellorose March 28th, 2013 3:35 PM

    Palm oil is the stuff to watch out for. I don’t know about health risks, but it’s used in a LOT of food and cosmetics and is directly responsible for the destruction of a LOT of rainforest, diminishing the habitats of animals in Sumatra and Borneo. Goodbye tigers and orangutans and clouded leopards (to name a few), hello vast oil palm plantations.

  • joenjwang March 28th, 2013 6:32 PM

    LOL. I’m so glad you included David Chang. I agree with his crusade against those who are going drama queen over MSG. So annoying.
    <3

  • ___ellarose March 28th, 2013 10:11 PM

    Thank you for this! Although I already knew a lot of what was written it makes me happy to know that more people who might not have do now!

  • Saana V March 30th, 2013 8:18 PM

    we have this “american shelf” in our grocery stores here and the biggest joke really is that the products on that shelf contain more of that sweetener crap and all than the other products in the whole shop. Which is kinda sad. idk.

    .. not that i don’t love some of them. (can’t say all bc twizzlers really don’t taste good to me)

  • whitenoise June 22nd, 2013 4:22 AM

    hersheys kisses taste funny compared to our chocolate!