We’re often told that you should never eat anything (or put anything on your body) if you don’t recognize everything on the ingredients list. But since most of us have no idea what xanthan gum or potassium benzoate are — or more importantly, what they’re doing to our bodies — we’re decoding the ingredients in the many things Americans put in (and on, or near) themselves.
This edition: Dunkin’ Donuts Munchkins Donut Hole Treats, which are made from 20 separate ingredients, some of which have ingredient lists of their own, that we’ve broken down as they appear on the Dunkin’ website. Note that while there are several different Munchkins donut hole flavors, we’ll be analyzing glazed as a control hole.
The Donut Hole
1) Enriched Wheat Flour (Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid): As we learned in our exploration of the many, many, many ingredients in the McDonald’s Big Mac, enriched flour can end up being far less “enriched” than the name would have you believe. In addition to containing more calories than whole wheat flour, the bleaching process enriched flour often undergoes produces an unfortunate byproduct: A chemical called alloxan, which has been found to induce diabetes in lab-animal test subjects by destroying their pancreas. Whether or not that applies to this enriched flour is hard to say.
2) Water: Together, water and flour make dough.
3) Palm Oil: Using vegetable oil in baked goods increases how moist they are when taken out of the oven. While that makes them nicer to eat, according to physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, consuming too much vegetable oil — which is easy to do, considering Shanahan says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions (e.g., fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines).
4) Yeast Donut Concentrate: This is a mixture of mainly dough-enhancing ingredients, which are listed below, that Dunkin’ uses to make their Munchkins.
- Soy Flour: Soy flour is an alternative to high-carbohydrate flours, like wheat flour. It boosts protein levels and adds moisture to baked goods.
- Salt: To enhance the flavor.
- Leavening: Leavening agents, like the following duo, help the dough rise. Sodium acid pyrophosphate is an acid that, when combined with baking soda, releases carbon dioxide gas, which causes baked goods to rise. Even though it has an intimidatingly long name, it’s safe in moderate amounts. Meanwhile, baking soda dances a tango with sodium acid pyrophosphate to produce carbon dioxide.
- Wheat Starch: Wheat starch is a basic thickener.
- Whey: Whey is essentially the liquid leftovers after milk has been curdled and strained. It’s usually added to processed foods as a source of protein and to add bulk.
- Nonfat Dry Milk: Another name for powdered milk, nonfat dry milk primarily adds flavor to baked goods.
- Gum Blend: The following gums all work together to improve the mouthfeel of these Munchkins. Cellulose gum is a common thickening agent, and consuming large amounts of it may add bulk to your stool and have a laxative effect, according to the FDA. So if your hole expands rapidly after downing some holes, you now know why. Guar gum is made from guar beans and acts as a stabilizer and thickener to improve texture. Acacia gum is a large genus of shrubs, lianas and trees. The secretions from these plants are typically turned into a gum, which can be used as a bulking agent, emulsifier, stabilizer, thickener, foaming agent, gelling agent, suspending agent and whipping agent. Carrageenan is widely used in the food industry for its gelling, thickening and stabilizing properties. Some animal studies argue that there’s a connection between carrageenan ingestion and inflammatory bowel disease; however, the FDA lists the ingredient as a Generally Recognized as Safe Substance. And more recent human studies take the FDA’s side on this one. Lastly, xanthan gum is a relatively harmless thickening agent. That said, those with bowel issues should be wary when consuming it, as a study found it to be a highly efficient laxative, just like that mocha frappuccino you ordered.
- Sodium Caseinate: Sodium caseinate is a compound of casein, a protein found in milk, that acts as a stabilizer, texturizer and thickener. What might happen if you were to consume loads of sodium caseinate remains an understudied topic.
- Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate: This ingredient is commonly incorporated in baked goods to strengthen dough, mix liquids and oils together and replace some fat and sugar. While it’s considered to be safe by the FDA, some people may experience an allergic reaction to the ingredient that consists of itching, swelling, mucus production, muscle spasms, hives and rash formation.
- Soybean Oil: More vegetable oil.
- Soy Lecithin: Soy lecithin is a component of fat found in — you guessed it — soy. It works as an emulsifier, helping the many ingredients in these Munchkins mix together.
- Whole Egg: Eggs add structure, color and flavor to baked goods by helping create a smoother, more voluminous batter.
- Natural Flavor: It’s hard to say what exactly this natural flavor is, but more generally, natural flavors are flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., cherry flavoring taken from a real cherry.
- Turmeric Extract (Color): This is what gives these glazed Munchkins their slightly yellow tint.
5) Enzymes: Enzymes help dough rise.
6) Annatto Extract (Color): Derived from the seeds of the achiote tree, annatto typically contributes a red color. When mixed with turmeric extract, the result is a golden, just-fried hue.
7) Dextrose: Dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like corn, and it promotes browning in baked goods. Fun fact: Dextrose has a high glycemic index, meaning it quickly raises blood sugar levels, so it’s used in IV solutions to treat low blood sugar and dehydration. People with diabetes might also consume dextrose tablets to raise their blood sugar if they become dangerously low. Because of this blood-sugar-boosting effect, consuming dextrose also provides an almost immediate jolt of energy — followed by an inevitable crash.
8) Soybean Oil: Yep, even more oil.
9) Yeast: The fungus that makes dough rise.
10) Mono and Diglycerides: This ingredient is typically added to food products as an emulsifier. But as I learned in my exploration of all 39 ingredients in the Dodger Dog, mono and diglycerides are oftentimes packed with trans fats that aren’t listed on the nutrition facts label, which is incredibly problematic. That’s because trans fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, and consuming more than you think you are (because they weren’t listed on the label) could do serious damage to your body.
1) Sugar: One Munchkin contains three grams of sugar, one gram less than a sugar cube, which isn’t too much if you only eat a few holes. For reference, the American Heart Association recommends men consume no more than 36 grams and women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar a day.
2) Water: More H2O.
3) Maltodextrin: Maltodextrin is usually used as a thickener or filler ingredient to add bulk to processed food and to increase its shelf life. (Maltodextrin itself has a shelf life of two years.)
4) Corn Starch: Cornstarch is starch derived from, well, corn. It serves to thicken the glaze.
5) Mono and Diglycerides: See above.
6) Citric Acid: Citric acid naturally occurs in citrus fruits and is often added to foods to extend their shelf life.
7) Agar: Agar is a vegetarian gelatin substitute made from seaweed, and it makes the glaze more firm.
8) Cellulose Gum: See above.
9) Potassium Sorbate (Preservative): Potassium sorbate is a widely-used preservative. It has the capacity to damage DNA when exposed to human blood cells, according to a 2010 study published in Toxicology in Vitro; however, long-term studies on the effects of regularly consuming the ingredient are required to provide a more definitive answer on the matter.
10) Artificial Flavor: Artificial flavors are chemical compounds created in a lab that mimic a natural flavor in some way. Lab-made flavors may sound unhealthy, but the amounts used in our foods are almost negligible, so fret not.
In an ideal world, questionable ingredients like potassium sorbate and mono and diglycerides have no place in doughnut holes. But the bigger problems with Munchkins are the same ingredients you bite into whenever you grab yourself any kind of doughnut: Fat and sugar, which can add up even in something as small as a doughnut hole. That said, so long as you only put a hole in your mouth now and again, you should be alright.