When it comes to our eating habits, we’ve been living in the future for quite some time. Compared to food of the past, ours is sweeter, its colours are brighter, and (if it’s bread) ultra-fluffly-er. Find out about all the neat things that you’re eating, even as you read this. That’s right. I see that hot pocket.
10. Ethyl Vanillin
You’ll find this in a lot of cake mixes, frostings and ice creams. It’s not too exciting, but I’m including it because I think it should start a new trend. Usually, when people find something boring, they call it ‘vanilla’. This is unfair. Vanilla is an honorable flavour, used in all kinds of baking, carefully made, and relatively rich. Ethyl vanillin, on the other hand, is a cheap vanilla knock-off, and made from wood pulp. So please, from now on say, “That’s so ethyl vanillin.” Because – isn’t it?
From vanilla to chocolate! Many lovers of chocolate and cocoa will notice the phrase ‘dutch chocolate’ or ‘processed with alkali’ on the side of their packages. Alkali is a basic salt, and neutralises acids. It gives cocoa a more consistent colour and removes some of the bitterness from it. It also removes ‘flavanoids’. Guess what they do? That’s why many chocolate purists, especially those who like bitter chocolate, will not eat chocolate processed to be flavanoid-free.
When you don’t have real cocoa to put in food, but you want to make it look like you did, you add caramel colouring. This is sometimes added to mixes and cake batters to make them look chocolatey. Mostly, though, caramel colouring is added to cooked meats, sodas and gravies to give them the golden-brown look that people find appetising. It’s made by cooking up various sugars with agents like ammonium or alkali. Although it’s possibly carcinogenic, it hasn’t been yanked from shelves, because people love brown food. Love it.
This is an additive that is much-celebrated by companies that add it. It naturally occurs in shellfish and meat, and has been added to many energy drinks. There has been no evidence that it does any harm to people. There has also been no evidence that it gives people energy. At least this additive can take the Hypocratic Oath.
Diacetyl is a butter flavouring. It’s produced naturally as part of the fermentation process of some beers. It’s added to instant or movie popcorn to give it that buttery flavour. It’s also added to butter. Yes, butter doesn’t taste enough like butter nowadays. It needs more butter flavouring in it. Diacetyl isn’t particularly harmful to those who eat it, but it causes lung problems in factory workers who inhale it when they process food. Most manufacturers who still use it have their workers wear protective gear.
5. Fumaric Acid
This stuff is in powdered juices, gels, pie fillings, and any other ‘fruit like’ powder. It’s cheap, easy to make, and is an acid that can be turned into dry powder. It gives things a tart flavour.
Lecithin is in ice cream, margarine, chocolates and most kinds of creamy dessert. When creamy things are made fresh and eaten quickly, they don’t have time to separate out. Most people who have left all-natural creams or chocolates out for a while notice that eventually they divide into a watery layer and a fatty layer. Lecithin is an emulsifier, which means it keeps that division from happening. It also leads to fluffier cakes and baked goods, so it’s in most manufactured baked products. This is one of the few additives that has a health benefit. It seems to bind to a certain protein and help metabolise glucose, which means it could one day be included in a medicine that helps diabetics, or people with high blood pressure.
The manufacturing process brings food into contact with materials it would rarely be near otherwise. Most foods are exposed to metal while being processed, and some foods, such as soda, are shipped in metal containers. EDTA (ethylenediamine tetraacetic acid) traps particles of metal in the food. Metal particles of the size and quantity that are usually in food aren’t dangerous to humans, but they can make the food rancid or muddy the food’s artificial colours. EDTA surrounds the particles and prevents them from ruining the food while still allowing us to eat the metal particles that we crave.
Additives like EDTA, that trap metal impurities, are called chelating agents or sequestrants. Chelation therapy – using chelating agents on humans – has successfully saved the lives of people suffering from toxic metal poisoning. It has also been used on patients with autism, although no benefits have been shown, and two children have died as a result of the therapy.
2. Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil
Ah, the old favourite. Vegetable oil is a liquid. When people hydrogenate it, they cook it at high temperatures. The process adds hydrogen atoms to it. This changes the shape of the molecule, and to a certain extent solidifies the oil. Partially hydrogenated oils are a cheap alternative to animal fats (which are also partially solidified at room temperature), but keep longer than animal fats without going rancid.
1. High Fructose Corn Syrup
Give it up for the champ. The most famous product to use this additive is American coca-cola. It’s not a point of national pride. Americans go abroad and notice the superior flavour of foreign coke, most of which is made with natural sugar. High fructose corn syrup also makes lab rats fatter than rats which have been eating regular sugar – even if the amount of calories each rat ate is the same. This additive was invented in 1957, when someone found out that adding an enzyme called glucose isomerase to corn produced an incredibly sweet syrup from the plant’s natural glucose. Once corn boomed, corn syrup was mass produced in the 70s, and has been earning a bad name for itself, while staying on the market, ever since. But don’t worry. You won’t be seeing that name on food forever. Manufacturers are petitioning to get the name changed to ‘corn sugar.’