We’re often told that you should never eat something 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) themselves with the help of an expert.
This edition: Jimmy Dean Bacon, Egg & Cheese Biscuit, which is made from more than 40 separate ingredients (some of which have ingredient lists of their own) that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on the Jimmy Dean website.
1) Enriched Bleached Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamin Mononitrate, Riboflavin and Folic Acid): As we learned in our exploration of the many ingredients in the McDonald’s Big Mac, enriched flour isn’t actually “enriched” at all. In addition to containing more calories than whole wheat flour, the bleaching process enriched flour undergoes produces an unfortunate byproduct: A chemical called alloxan, which has been found to induce diabetes in lab-animal test subjects by destroying the pancreas.
2) Water: You drink this one.
3) Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable Oil (Soybean and Cottonseed Oils): According to physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, 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 (i.e., fatty liver disease, insulin resistance and migraines). But hydrogenated vegetable oil is even worse: When you add hydrogen to food via hydrogenation — which many manufactures do to increase the food’s shelf life — you get trans fats. Unfortunately, trans fats raise cholesterol, harden arteries and inhibit the formation of an enzyme called cyclooxygenase, which helps determine the dilation of your arteries and regulates blood flow.
While it’s nearly impossible to eliminate vegetable oil from your diet altogether — major contributors include processed food, fried food, frozen pizza, cake, cookies, margarine and coffee creamer — it’s best consumed in moderation.
4) Cultured Buttermilk: Cultured buttermilk is the byproduct of churning butter out of cream and is usually put into processed foods to add heartiness and oftentimes a creamy texture.
5) Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate and Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate): “Sodium aluminum phosphate and sodium acid pyrophosphate are acids that cause a chemical reaction when combined with baking soda to release carbon dioxide gas and form a rising effect in baked goods,” Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, explains. Unfortunately, sodium aluminum phosphate is an ingredient to watch out for: “There is growing evidence for a link between Al [aluminum] and AD [alzheimer’s disease],” a 2011 study concludes. And by consuming sodium aluminum phosphate, you’re consuming aluminum.
6) Dextrose: Dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like the wheat used to make this biscuit. Fun fact: Dextrose has a high glycemic index, meaning it quickly raises the 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 levels if they become dangerously low.
7) Salt: This is added for flavor.
8) Calcium Propionate and Potassium Sorbate (Preservatives): Calcium propionate is an antifungal added to bread products to prevent mold growth. In addition to being linked to migraines, a 2002 study in the Journal of Paediatric Child Health found that chronic exposure to calcium propionate in children caused irritability, restlessness, inattention and sleep disturbance. So for the sake of your kid’s health and your sleep schedule, watch out for this ingredient.
Similar to calcium propionate, potassium sorbate is a widely used preservative. It’s also an ingredient to steer clear of: According to a 2010 study published in Toxicology in Vitro, potassium sorbate damages DNA when exposed to human blood cells; however, long-term studies on the effects of regularly consuming the ingredient are required to provide a definitive answer on the matter.
9) Guar Gum: “Guar gum is derived from guar beans and acts as a stabilizer and thickener to improve texture,” Xavier explains.
10) Xanthan Gum: Similar to guar gum, xanthan gum is a thickening agent. It’s relatively harmless. That said, those with bowel issues should be wary when consuming it, as a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found it to be a highly efficient laxative.
11) Natural Flavor: Natural flavor is quite literally flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., butter flavoring taken from real butter.
12) Beta Carotene (Color): Beta carotene is a pigment found in plants that gives yellow and orange fruits (like oranges) and vegetables (like carrots) their color.
13) Soy Lecithin: Soy lecithin is a component of fat found in (you guessed it!) soy. It’s typically added to food products as an emulsifier. In simpler terms, it helps the numerous ingredients found in these biscuits mix together. “It’s also frequently used to extend product shelf life,” explains Xavier. Board-certified nutrition specialist Jason Boehm adds that unless you have an extreme allergy to soy — which you’d know by now — soy lecithin isn’t anything to worry about.
14) Soy Flour: Soy flour is an alternative to high-carbohydrate flours (like wheat flour). It boosts protein levels and adds moisture to baked goods.
Grilled Egg Patty
1) Whole Eggs: The kind that come from a chicken.
2) Water: The stuff you make ice with.
3) Soybean Oil: As we mentioned earlier, a diet laden with vegetable oils (including soybean oil) is the kind of diet that won’t do your body any good.
4) Nonfat Dry Milk: Nonfat dry milk, aka powdered milk, is just pasteurized skim milk with all of the water removed.
5) Modified Corn Starch: Corn starch is extracted from the corn kernels, then treated physically, enzymatically or chemically to partially break down the starch. It’s typically used as a batter to give foods a light, crispy texture.
6) Salt: More salt.
7) Xanthan Gum: Still just a thickening agent.
8) Natural and Artificial Butter Flavor (Butter [Cream, Milk], Partially Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil, Soybean Oil, Lipolyzed Butter Oil, Natural and Artificial Flavors): Since we’ve already discussed natural flavors, let’s talk artificial flavors. Artificial flavors are chemical compounds created in a lab that mimic a natural flavor in some way. While that may sound unnatural (and thus, unhealthy), Shanahan has no real problem with artificial flavors: “They’re not killers because they’re added in very, very small quantities to food.”
That said, lipolyzed butter oil is an ingredient that warrants concern. “Lipolyzed butter oil is butter that has had any non-fat solids and water removed, and the fat particles have been broken down into free fatty acids,” Xavier explains. That means this ingredient is essentially 100 percent free fatty acids, and according to this 2008 study, free fatty acids are linked to obesity, insulin resistance and inflammation.
9) Citric Acid: Citric acid naturally occurs in citrus fruits, and it’s often added to foods to extend their shelf life.
Pasteurized Processed American Cheese
1) American Cheese (Cultured Milk, Salt, Enzymes and Artificial Color): This cheddar American cheese isn’t any different from your average processed cheese (i.e., probably not really even cheese), despite containing suspicious-sounding ingredients like “cheese cultures” and “enzymes.”
2) Water: You wash yourself with it.
3) Cream: The fat-filled layer skimmed from the top of milk before homogenization.
4) Sodium Citrate: Sodium citrate is the sodium salt of citric acid. It acts as a preservative and can be used to provide a sour taste when added in high amounts.
5) Salt: Even more salt.
6) Sodium Phosphate: Sodium phosphate is a generic term that may refer to any sodium salt combined with phosphoric acid (which prevents the growth of mold and bacteria). They’re usually added as texturizers and emulsifiers, which allows for the uniform dispersion of numerous ingredients. One study suggests phosphate additives contribute to the prevalence of chronic kidney disease, and the FDA even issued a safety warning concerning the use of over-the-counter sodium phosphate products to treat constipation. All in all, this is an ingredient to be wary of.
7) Sorbic Acid (Preservative): Another preservative used for its antimicrobial properties, sorbic acid is on the FDA’s list of “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, substances.
8) Lactic Acid: Lactic acid is a sugar added for acidic flavoring. It’s the main sugar in milk and can also be used to speed up the coagulation process of cheeses.
9) Artificial Color: Artificial colors have a bad reputation, but as Shanahan explained during our analysis of Doritos, studies arguing this are a bit flawed:
“I’ve always been of the opinion that studies claiming artificial colors can cause cancer are irrelevant because [in the studies] they use really high amounts of the artificial colors — like, a million times more than you’d ever get [in your] food [throughout your lifetime].”
All in all, the average person’s liver should be able to break down whatever minuscule amount of artificial coloring we consume with food.
10) Enzymes: Pretty much all cheese is made using some kind of enzyme to speed up the fermentation process.
11) Soy Lecithin: Again, soy lecithin helps the other ingredients in this cheese blend together.
While this is real bacon, it’s cured with the following ingredients:
1) Water: The stuff of rain and swimming pools.
2) Salt: Enough with the salt already!
3) Sugar: This adds that much-desired caramelized flavor.
4) Smoke Flavoring: Because this bacon isn’t cooked in a smoker — it’s cooked in the microwave.
5) Sodium Phosphate: Again, too much of this ingredient will wreck your kidneys.
6) Sodium Erythorbate: Sodium erythorbate is a food additive added predominantly to prevent microbial growth or preserve freshness. “It has antioxidant properties and is used most commonly in processed meats, where it retards nitrosamine (a carcinogen) formation and color fading,” Xavier explains. It’s not all good, though: If you’re sensitive to sodium erythorbate, you may experience side effects like headaches, dizziness, fatigue, lethargy and body flushing.
7) Sodium Nitrite: “Sodium nitrite stabilizes the red color in cured meats, which prevents the meat from naturally turning gray,” Xavier explains. “Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of nitrosamines (a carcinogen).”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Jimmy Dean breakfast sandwich contains ingredients that will take aim at nearly every one of your vital organs: Enriched bleached flour will drop-kick your pancreas; partially hydrogenated vegetable oil will break your heart; sodium aluminum phosphate will rattle your brain; and sodium phosphate will curb stomp your kidneys. So while they’re convenient, it’s definitely worth cooking up your own homemade breakfast sandwich instead.