Food-ingredient labels are getting shorter. Why? Because the people have spoken: We want fewer, better ingredients in our foods. We asked, and the companies that make our food responded by replacing artificial colors and flavors, removing what’s unessential, and using naturally derived ingredients.
But even shorter “clean” labels can still read like a technical manual. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing — just because a food ingredient is unfamiliar or has a difficult-to-pronounce name doesn’t mean it’s not good for you.
For instance, you might not have heard of cholecalciferol, and it sounds a little scary. But cholecalciferol is just another name for Vitamin D. You might not have heard of rickets, either; that’s because this once-common childhood disease became nearly obsolete when Vitamin D, which prevents rickets, was added to milk (Vitamin D also helps our bodies absorb the calcium in milk).
Another ingredient with a somewhat strange name is carrageenan. This seaweed-based ingredient makes some of our favorite foods more nutritious. It replaces the sodium in lunch meat and can take the place of fats, oils and sugar, which is why that nonfat yogurt you had for lunch tastes just as good as the full-fat option, without the guilt.
Microcrystalline cellulose (MCC) might look like a mouthful, but MCC — also called cellulose gel — is just cellulose derived from fruits, vegetables and trees. Cellulose, which is the most common organic compound on earth, is one of only seven FDA-approved sources of fiber. So when microcrystalline cellulose or cellulose gel appears on a food label, it means your food contains the same plant fiber found in broccoli and apples.
Other ingredients that might not ring a bell? Turmeric is a plant in the ginger family that has been used as a medicine and spice in India for thousands of years. Modern science has shown it is also a powerful antioxidant that settles upset stomachs and may lower cholesterol and prevent heart attacks, all while brightening your food with its deep yellow color.
Some of the unfamiliar ingredients on your food label might literally be found in your own backyard. Pectin, for example, comes from the peels of lemons or other citrus fruits and is commonly used to thicken jams and jellies.
Understanding what goes into our food is important. But it’s also important that we don’t say “no” to a product just because we don’t recognize every ingredient on its label. When we research the ones we’re not familiar with, we might come to find that those “scary additives” are actually delicious gifts from nature.
To learn more about what’s in your food, visit foodsciencematters.com.