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Decoding Food Ingredients Food Ingredients

Posted: 2009-07-23 11:11:34
Sodium Bisulfite

Certain toilet bowl cleaners are almost 50 percent sodium bisulfite, and most commercial wines also contain it. When dissolved in water-based liquids, sodium bisulfite releases sulfur gas that kills bacteria, yeasts, molds, and fungi. It also prevents oxidation, which protects wine from turning to vinegar.

This popular compound has a dubious past. It was banned from use on raw fruits and veggies by the
FDA in the '80s following the deaths of 13 people who unknowingly consumed produce treated with toxic amounts of the preservative. Today, the FDA maintains that sulfites are generally safe. The Center for Science in the Public Interest however, warns asthmatics and others sensitive to sulfites to avoid it completely. It is now most commonly used in pet foods, potato chips and dried and pickled foods.

Benzoyl Peroxide

What do white bread and acne cream have in common? Best-known as a zit-zapper, benzoyl peroxide is an effective bleaching agent, and as such is used in teeth whitening products and to bleach cheese, whey and flour.

While benzoyl peroxide is generally considered benign, there has been some debate over its safety and necessity. Usually, artisanal bread and cheese do not contain this bleaching agent, and some national companies, like
King Arthur, don't use benzoyl peroxide in their bread or flour. Did you really need another reason to choose whole wheat?

Potassium Bromate

Potassium bromate is a seemingly innocuous powder added to biscuits, breads and rolls to make them rise. But there's a hitch: Potassium bromate is known to cause cancer in animals, and creates a cancer risk in humans. Usually, potassium bromate is completely dissipated by the baking process, but if too much is added or bread is not cooked for long enough at a high enough temperature, dangerous residual amounts remain.

The International Agency for Research on Cancer defines potassium bromate as "possibly carcinogenic to humans." Because it's difficult to control how a company uses the ingredient, almost all countries have banned it from use in food products. In the United States, however, the FDA has merely been asking bakers to voluntarily stop using it; some have not complied. The
Center for Science in the Public Interest categorizes potassium bromate as an additive to avoid, defining it as "very poorly tested and not worth any risk." To avoid potassium bromate, also look for "bromated flour" on labels.

Tetrasodium Phosphorate

Tetrasodium phosphorate has the unglamorous distinction of being the common ingredient in multiple semi-gooey foods. The transparent crystals are used as an emulsifier, a buffering agent and a thickening agent in chicken nuggets, pudding, imitation crab and lobster, canned tuna and many soy-based faux meats. It is also an effective detergent and tartar control agent, which can be found in toothpaste, soap, and dental floss. Despite its unglamorous pedigree, tetrasodium phosphorate has not seen much controversy, though in high doses, it can be mildly toxic.

Sodium Nitrite

Nitrite, found in hot dogs, is positively unnerving: This crystalline powder is used to dye fabrics, manufacture rubber chemicals and to fix color in packaged meats. If consumed in high doses, it's toxic. It can also trigger migraines. If that's not enough to freak you out, how about this: According to a study in the "Journal of the American Medical Association," people who ate processed meat were 50 percent more likely to develop colorectal cancer. A study in the
"Journal of the National Cancer Institute" found that those who ate the most processed meats had a 68 percent higher risk of pancreatic cancer than those who ate the least. The Center for Science in the Public Interest categorizes nitrate as an additive to avoid. If possible, stay away from packaged meats, or buy the nitrite-free varieties popping up in supermarkets across the country.


Methylparaben can be found in, among other things, lipstick, local anesthetic, salad dressings, dried meats, potato-based snacks and candy. Like most compounds in the paraben family, it's antimicrobial and is used most often as a preservative in foods, drinks and cosmetics. While multiple studies have reported that parabens are safe, a few more recent studies suggest a possible link between parabens -- including ethylparaben, propylparaben, and butylparabe -- to breast cancer. Industries that use parabens insist on their proven track record, while some public interest organizations believe that parabens require further study to definitively confirm their safety.

Lactic Acid

Enjoy a tart cup of yogurt in the morning? Or a nice side of sauerkraut with your Bavarian sausage feast? You have lactic acid to thank for that bittersweet taste. Lactic acid is a harmless organic acid that occurs naturally in sour milk or is added to food as a syrupy liquid produced from either milk-sugar fermentation or corn fermentation. Lactic acid infuses food with tartness, adjusts PH balance, and can control micro-organisms and bacteria. As a fermentation booster, it is used in rye and sourdough breads. As a moisturizer and exfoliant, it's added to skin lotions. Lactic acid spends most of its time preserving or flavoring baby food, candy, frozen desserts, salad dressings, seafood, and more.

Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein

You may think you've sworn off monosodium glutamate, or MSG, but you may be eating its equivalent with some brands of chicken noodle soup. That's because MSG -- that demonized flavor enhancer -- comes in many forms, and one of them is hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP).

HVP is a brown powder that is produced when cereals and legumes like corn, soy and wheat are boiled in hydrochloric acid and then neutralized with sodium hydroxide. The powder contains, among other things, glutamic acid, the sodium salt form of which is MSG. Food producers don't want to be associated with MSG -- the infamous bad boy of the ingredients world, believed to be linked to neurological problems and known to trigger severe allergic reactions and migraines -- but they do want to infuse their broths, stews, and meat and poultry products with its savory taste. Enter HVP, which sounds pretty healthy, with the words "vegetable" and "protein" in it.

While it may not do harm to those who aren't sensitive to it, it's risky for those whose systems react badly to glutamates. To avoid unknowingly consuming glutamates, check labels (even of products marked "No MSG") for other sources of glutamate like autolyzed yeast extract and hydrolyzed yeast extract.

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These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. These products are not intended to treat, diagnose, or cure any diseases.