I don’t always read the ingredients in products that I buy, but for some reason I looked at the jar of unsweetened applesauce in my pantry this weekend and noted an ingredient that I hadn’t seen before, erythorbic acid. Erythorbic acid, formerly known as isoascorbic acid, is a vegetable-derived food additive produced from sucrose that is used as an antioxidant. On the jar of applesauce it states that it is used to maintain color, so that makes sense, but the vitamin C content is still zero percent.
So of course this got me wondering about some of the other additives in common food products. What are some of the additives that are typically seen in food products and what are they there for?
An item that has an interesting name is maltodextrin. Maltodextrin is a food additive that is somewhere between a sugar and a starch. Starches are long chains of sugar molecules that aren’t sweet. Sugars are made up of just one or two molecules and they are sweet. Maltodextrin is created by breaking down corn starch or sometimes rice or potato starch. It is added in small amounts to a wide variety of foods such as reduced-fat ice creams and salad dressings to improve texture and sometimes to increase sweetness. Maltodextrin is digested like any other starch that our body breaks down into sugars, a process that starts in the mouth, where a small amount of maltodextrin is formed naturally.
I know what turmeric is, but why is it in my cereal? This common spice that is grown in India and other tropical regions of Asia has a long history of use as an herbal remedy. The active ingredient is curcumin (not related to cumin). Curcumin is actually an antioxidant that has been shown to inhibit cancer cells in the laboratory, and curcumin slows the growth and spread of some cancers in some animal studies. Clinical trials are underway to see how it will benefit humans. Curcumin is being studied for its possible benefit for arthritis, Alzheimer’s disease and stomach ulcers as well as lowering bad cholesterol. The list for the possible benefits of turmeric goes on — a little for added color in my cereal is OK.
Calcium carbonate, calcium caseinate, calcium chloride, calcium citrate, calcium phosphate and calcium sulfates are calcium salts. Most are gelling or firming agents and acid neutralizers. These salts can be found in canned vegetables, sports drinks, are used to make cheese, in meat tenderizers, bottled water and ice cream and just about anything else. The phosphates are used as leaveners.
Triticale is a man-made, high-protein, rye-wheat hybrid that contains a large amount of the essential amino acid lysine. It has a pleasant nutty flavor. Often triticale is rolled into flakes and toasted like oatmeal, but the majority of it is actually milled into flour in the U.S. Triticale flour contains more gluten than rye but less than wheat, so it makes a heavy bread unless it is combined with wheat flour. This grain along with buckwheat, barley, oats, hard red winter wheat and long grain brown rice and other nutritious ingredients were found in my Kashi cereal. Yum!
So the next time you pick up a box, jar or package of food, look at the list of ingredients and see if you recognize everything listed there. If you don’t, look the items up. See what you are eating.
Georgia Clark-Albert is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified diabetes educator at Penobscot Community Health Care in Bangor. She provides nutrition consultant services through Mainely Nutrition in Athens. Read more of her columns and post questions at bangordailynews.com or email her at GeorgiaMaineMSRDCDE@gmail.com.