What are all these ingredients doing in my food?

An interesting article from the most recent issue of Chemical & Engineering News to talk about today. “Call in the Food Fixers” takes a good look at all of the replacements we find in food today.

The article isn’t strictly tied to gluten-free foods, and examines the ingredients that allow us to eat foods without (or with less) gluten, fat and sugar. The food scientists at the world’s largest brands pay careful attention to the taste, texture and appearance of their products — but what are they looking at?

Interestingly, “no new texture additives have entered the market for decades,” and today’s researchers are instead focused on modifying and combining the existing options: modified food starch, carrageenan, xanthum, agar, gelatin, pectin, etc. Fun fact: did you know xanthum gum comes from industrial bacterial fermentation, and the bacteria was discovered naturally keeping cabbage leaves from drying out in droughts?

The market for these less-than-glamorous ingredients is billions of dollars yearly, and unsurprisingly the manufacturers are closely dialed in to food trends. They’re hard at work figuring out how to add air back into gluten-free bread, and how to make microwave pizza crispy instead of chewy.

They’re also increasing the availability — at consumer demand — organic, gluten-free, GMO-free, and other karma-happy products. Pectin is experiencing a boon, because people recognize the word and it has a natural, wholesome aura about it.

However, just because it sounds natural doesn’t mean it’s made by a happy grandma in an old-timey kitchen. “Natural” is still a word that means nothing, at least as far as packaging is concerned:

There are no government standards that regulate the use of the words “natural” or “all natural.” Food ingredient lists are not as informative on the subject as some consumers might wish. For example, carboxymethylcellulose normally appears as cellulose gum on food labels. Chemically altered starch is listed as modified, but modified pectin is just listed as pectin.

The article goes on, quoting,

“Michael F. Jacobson, executive director for the advocacy group Center for Science in the Public Interest, “Something could be natural, where no chemical bonds are broken, but it’s gone through such an amount of processing that the term natural becomes almost like a religious doctrine. How do you determine natural versus unnatural?” Jacobson says textural ingredients—even modified ones—are not harmful, but they also don’t bring any health benefits.”

In general, the article’s an interesting read and one I’d recommend if you’re interested in the labels on your food. Check it out here.

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