Should You Be Scared of Food Ingredients You Can’t Pronounce?

Food labels contain some strange words – benzoate, lecithin and others.

Sounds scary! Some people have decided not to eat any foods with ingredients they can’t pronounce. But are these ingredients toxic? Are they natural? Why are they in your food?

To address these questions and provide some context, we reached out to experts. Dr. Michael Holsapple and Heather Dover, RDN, are the faculty and staff associated with the Center for Research on Ingredient Safety at Michigan State University.

“As toxicologists and food scientists, we believe that, by and large, food ingredients are safe. We encourage consumers to look at food labels, as they are an important source of information on the safety of that food, and they provide evidence to enable informed choices,” Holsapple said.

Know Your Label

When reading ingredients, it is helpful to know a few guidelines. Dr. Ruth MacDonald, RD and Chair of the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition at Iowa State University, said that all the components of a packaged food must be listed on the package.

“Ingredients are listed in order from most to least, but the exact amount of any ingredient is not required to be provided. Additives typically will be toward the end of the list because they are used in small amounts,” she said.

When evaluating ingredients, Holsapple and Dover said it’s important to keep in mind that adding substances to food is a centuries-old practice, and that ingredients have a purpose – such as adding flavor, enhancing texture or appearance, and preserving food against bacteria, mold, and fungi.

We asked the experts about three ingredients often found in food.

Xanthan Gum: This food ingredient is produced when sugar is fermented by bacteria. The starch from corn, soy or wheat are the most common sources of the sugars, Holsapple said.

“Its primary use is as a thickening agent, or as a stabilizer to prevent separation of ingredients.  Because xanthan gum is extremely effective in small quantities (e.g., in most foods, it is used at concentrations of 0.5% or less), it is a common food additive that can be found in everything from sauces to salad dressings to ice cream and yogurts.  It helps to prevent oil separation by stabilizing the emulsion, although it is not an emulsifier, and it also helps to suspend solid particles, such as spices,” he said.

Those with a corn, wheat or soy allergy may be worried about triggering an allergic reaction, but Holsapple notes that the product has very low risk of allergic reaction. “In fact, xanthan gum is notably used to replace grains or other sensitizers in products intended for individuals with sensitivities or allergies to grain,” he said.

Soy Lecithin: Lecithin is derived from soybean oil. It has emulsifying properties, which means it keeps oils suspended in waters. It is used in many creamy ingredients such as salad dressing, margarine and chocolate. Lecithin can also be collected from eggs.

“These may be considered ‘natural’ chemicals because they are found in their functional form in a living thing,” MacDonald said.

For those who are allegoric to soy, consuming soy lecithin is usually safe because most of the proteins are removed during processing, according to the Food Allergy Research and Resource Program at the University of Nebraska.

Sodium Benzoate: Sodium benzoate is an antimicrobial that helps keep food safe to eat.

“The FDA defines antimicrobial agents as ‘substances used to preserve food by preventing growth of microorganisms and subsequent spoilage.’ Because of this antimicrobial activity, these chemicals are used as preservatives to slow the growth of bacteria, fungi and molds,” Holsapple said.

Other examples of antimicrobials are benzoic acid, potassium benzoate and calcium benzoate. Benzoic acid occurs naturally in many plants – cranberries, plums, cinnamon and others. Sodium benzoate can also be found naturally in low levels in many fruits, and both chemicals can be synthesized in a lab.  Most importantly, both chemicals are declared to be Generally Regarded as Safe (GRAS) by FDA.

“It is also widely recognized that after oral intake, benzoic acid and sodium benzoate are rapidly absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, and are metabolized in the liver by conjugation with glycine, resulting in the formation of hippuric acid, which is rapidly excreted via the urine,” Holsapple said.

Two health concerns have been associated with sodium benzoate, he said. When combined with ascorbic acid, benzene, which is a known human carcinogen, can form. As a result of studies, some beverages were reformulated to reduce the risk. Another study considered a possible link between the consumption of sodium benzoate, and mixtures of artificial colors, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) in children. Because sodium benzoate was never tested alone, the study did not find a conclusive connection between this additive and ADHD. However, some food companies changed their formulations to remove the artificial colors.

Holsapple said consumers will want to make their own decisions about avoiding certain ingredients.

“You can choose to avoid foods with synthetic preservatives, like sodium benzoate / benzoic acid; but you may consequently increase the risk of you and your family being exposed to microbial pathogens because so-called ‘natural’ preservatives are not as effective.” he said.

Be informed, not scared

A healthy diet means finding balance, MacDonald said. Keep food safety in mind and remember that choices have tradeoffs.

“Every change to our food system has broad repercussions. It is recommended that consumers fully examine claims that suggest health risks associated with food additives and to be aware of the composition of substitutes or replacements,” she said.

Holsapple and Dover also encourage people to seek out reliable information.

“We believe that consumers should be informed about why certain chemicals are added to food, and at what levels these ingredients could potentially cause adverse health effects.  Our aim is to provide information on both beneficial and detrimental chemicals in order to address consumer uncertainty, and to improve their ability to make evidence-informed choices,” Dover said.

If you discover an additive you can’t pronounce, don’t be scared! Learn more about it and then decide if you would prefer to remove the ingredient from your diet, or decide if you believe it’s okay to keep consuming those foods.