Mikal has been an online writer for over eight years. Her articles focus on medical and health issues.
Below is an alphabetical list of the food additives in two cookie boxes in my cupboard. I’ve been meaning to do this for a long time but haven’t gotten around to it. The cookies are Peak Farms and Mr Christie’s brand. I just don’t think you should need a degree in chemistry or food science to know what you’re eating.
- Ammonium Bicarbonate: Ammonium bicarbonate is also called powdered baking ammonia. It’s derived from the gas that ammonia gives off (the stuff that makes your eyes water) and carbon dioxide. No amount of reading could help me form a good picture in my head of how this works. If you're into chemistry this is a pretty good explanation (I think). It is used to cause baked goods like cookies and crackers (thin or flat baked goods) to rise. It was commonly used in homes before baking powder was commercially available and is still a pretty common baking ingredient in many Scandinavian homes. As well as food ammonium bicarbonate is a common addition to fire extinguisher compounds, dyes, medicine and fertilizer. Pure ammonium bicarbonate can irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory system but doesn’t seem to cause any permanent damage.
- Citric Acid: Citric acid occurs naturally in fruits and beverages and is used in food processing for it strong tangy flavour and as a mild preservative. You can find it in soft drinks, candy and other sweets. It is also used in soaps and detergents softening the water and allowing the soaps to foam. It’s also used in food colouring. The citric acid in our food is produced by fermenting corn-based starch but it can also be extracted from citrus fruits.
- Corn starch: Corn starch is fairly self-explanatory. It’s starch made from corn. Corn starch is made by grinding and processing corn endosperm (the fluffy part when you make popcorn). In cooking it’s used as a thickening agent. This is one of the few ingredients you might read on a package and use at home.
- Dextrose: Dextrose is a high glycemic index simple carbohydrate. It’s so high that bodybuilders use it to create insulin spikes (not sure why), but it is also found in a lot of foods. In foods it’s just used as a sweetener, it tastes good. I’d be careful not to eat too much of it though, it’ll give you a really good sugar high. It is derived from corn. It is also administered intravenously for people who cannot get enough calories and liquid in their bodies.
- Glucose: Glucose is the simple sugar that is the main energy source for our bodies. We get it by eating starchy foods like pasta, potatoes, vegetables, fruits, rice and most processed foods. Problems with glucose levels in your bloodstream can lead to diabetes. Invert Sugar: Invert sugar is a kind of sugar that has been processed to control the build up of crystallization. It’s found in sorbets, and anything with fondant filling. It’s basically sugar plus acids like citric or ascorbic acids. According to Wikipedia you can even use lemon juice to make it. If you’ve ever made jam at home than you’ve inadvertently made invert sugar. The heating process plus the acids in the fruit break down the sugar so that it’s smoother.
- Modified Milk Ingredients: Modified Milk Ingredients (I’m going type MMO from now on) is an umbrella term for a lot of different things. Milk is very versatile and can be processed in a lot of different way. Because of the processing these products undergo manufacturers can’t just put ‘milk’ on the box. As I was doing research on MMOs I realized that their presence in Canada is due to tariffs on liquid milk and cream. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says: "Modified milk ingredients are defined in item 7.1, subsection B.01.010 (3) of the FDR, as "any of the following in liquid, concentrated, dry, frozen or reconstituted form, namely, calcium reduced skim milk (obtained by the ion-exchange process), casein, caseinates, cultured milk products, milk serum proteins, ultrafiltered milk, whey, whey butter, whey cream and any other component of milk the chemical state of which has been altered from that in which it is found in milk". Way to make milk super-complicated Canadian Food Inspection Agency. Are there MMOs in your country? Let me know in the comments.
- Modified Palm Oil: Modified palm oil is a naturally saturated fat that has tung oil and sodium hydroxide added to it in order to make it more stable and solid so it’s easier to use. It produced by combining palm oil and tung oil using sodium hydroxide as a catalyst. Palm oil also seems to have some pretty negative effects on the countries that grow it (Maylasia, Indonesia, Papua New Guinea and others) including clear cutting and destruction of other eco-systems. There's a great study out there about the different effects that natural and modified palm oil had on piglets over the course of 12 weeks. The modified palm oil piglets gained more weight then the natural palm oil piglets. Interestingly the study concluded that natural palm oil actually reduces the fat held in the body.
- Pectin: Pectin is a thickening agent that occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables. It’s probably best known as an ingredient in jam. It can be made from orange or apple peels or bought in powder form. It is also used as a direct means to increase your fibre. You can see the effect of pectin when you let an apple or pair start to rot. The fruit gets mushy as the pectin diminishes. Pectin is natural, common and healthy.
- Sodium bicarbonate: Sodium bicarbonate is better known by another name: Baking Soda. It’s used, obviously, in baked goods as well as an antacid if you’ve got heartburn it can also be used to make your blood or urine less acidic. In foods it alkalizes, breaking down acids and creating carbon dioxide makes little bubbles and raises the dough. As an added bonus, there are some researches currently touting the use of sodium bicarbonate as a cancer treatment.
- Sodium citrate: Sodium citrate is also known as trisodium citrate. It is a sour salt that occurs naturally in citrus fruits and berries. Sodium nitrate has many different applications. Food manufacturers use sodium citrate in soft drinks, energy drinks, cookies and other sweets for it’s tart flavour. It is also used in yogurt and ice cream to make them smooth. As an additive it works to keep foods from becoming too acidic and delays spoiling. Sodium citrate is also prescribed as a medication to assist the kidneys in getting rid of uric acid and preventing gout and kidney stones.
- Sodium hydroxide: Sodium hydroxide is the caustic soda better known as lye. It’s the chemical that makes soap sting when you get it in your eyes. It’s also used in the manufacture of pulp and paper, textiles, drinking water, petroleum processing, detergents and as a drain cleaner. Sodium hydroxide is used in the preparation of fruits and vegetables (for peeling), chocolate, caramel coloring, poultry processing, soft drinks, ice creams, olives and pretzels. The sodium hydroxide used in food would be very diluted which is fortunate since too much of it can cause nasty chemical burns and blindness and is corrosive to aluminium and glass. It has also been suggested that sodium hydroxide can cause of cancer of the oesophagus in individuals who have ingested it. Yum. It's also important to learn what the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has to say about sodium hydroxide in emergency situations. It's also important to learn how to treat sodium hydroxide poisoning at home.
- Sorbitol: Sorbitol is a sugar alcohol about 60% as sweet as sugar. Because it is poorly absorbed in our bodies it’s a good choice for those at risk for diabetes as it does not raise insulin levels. Sorbitol is used in foods to make them sweet and keep them moist. Most often it is used in low-calorie foods as well as toothpaste and mouthwash. It is also used in soap as a skin-softener. It’s a naturally occurring substance that we get from fruits and vegetable but for the most part the sorbitol in processed foods is (like so many other things on this list) made from corn. Unlike some other ingredients on this list sorbitol is very safe to eat. The biggest risk is eating too much of it as it can have a laxative effect. Moderation is key.
- Soy Lecithin: Soy lecithin is one of the top ten most used ingredients in all foods. Lecithin does not only come from soy beans. It is a naturally occurring fatty substance that occurs in both animal and plant tissues, including our own. Lecithin from soybeans is extracted from soybean oil. Soy lecithin is used to keep ready made batters moist and chocolate bars from being crumbly. Soy lecithin is actually pretty healthy and can be purchased as an additive as it has a high amount of choline, a nutrient in the B vitamin family that is thought to aid in the development of healthy baby brains and livers.
- Tartrazine: Also referred to as yellow 5 or E102, the simple definition here is that tartrazine is a food colourant. It makes things lemon-yellow. You might find it in cookies, puddings, soda and drinks. Of food colourants, this one is the most likely to cause allergic reactions. It’s a derivative of crude oil that is mixed in with nitric and sulphuric acids. It is also alleged to have a hand in hyperactivity, migraines, skin rashes, anxiety and depression. But studies are inconclusive and in some cases contradictory. I’ll be keeping a close eye on how I feel after eating this.
- Tung Oil: Tung oil, which is one of the ingredients used to modify palm oil. It is an oil pressed from the nut of the tung tree. It is most often used as a wood sealant and in fact adheres so well to porous surfaces that it is also used to seal granite and stone. It is also used in paint, waterproof coatings, caulk and mortar. Not to say that it’s necessarily dangerous. It is an unsaturated oil generally considered to be safe for food preparation surfaces, unless you have a nut allergy. It is FDA approved for food contact.
Hmm. In some cases scary, in all cases yummy. If I'm perfectly honest, even knowing all this stuff probably won't stop me from finishing that box of cookies. What does that say about me?
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.
vandynegl from Ohio Valley on May 19, 2013:
Hi ar.colton! I just found your article here and I write a lot about the "stuff" that is in our foods. Granted, you must've had a better version of cookies in your pantry because I've seen much worse! I have issues with Yellow #5 (and other food colorings) since they are known to cause cancer in lab animals, so feeding things like this to my kids just isn't up my alley. Thanks for sharing this information! It is good to do research on specific ingredients to know what you are eating!
Mikal Smith (author) from Vancouver, B.C. on April 01, 2013:
I totally agree Christina!
Christina on January 16, 2013:
I really think that we need to start paying attention to what we and our children consume.
Mikal Smith (author) from Vancouver, B.C. on February 12, 2012:
I was surprised actually. If you read all the defintions you'll find that most of them aren't all that bad. No worse, anyway, than touching a public doorknob and then touching your face, which people do multiple times a day. Good stuff to know though, you wouldn't pick something random up of the ground and eat it just because someone else said it was alright would you?
Thanks for stopping by Madurai.
Madurai from Online on February 11, 2012:
You have scared the readers here by providing the alphabetical list of the food. THanks for SHARING:)