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) themselves with the help of an expert.
This edition: Pepperoni Pizza Hot Pockets, which are made from 27 separate ingredients (some of which have ingredients lists of their own) that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on their website.
1) Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Malted Barley Flour, Niacin, Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid): As we learned in our exploration of the many, many, 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 their pancreas.
2) Water: You (hopefully) drink this one.
3) Reduced Fat Mozzarella Cheese (Pasteurized Part Skim Milk, Nonfat Milk, Modified Food Starch, Cultures, Salt, Vitamin A Palmitate, Enzymes): As physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, explained to us during our analysis of Doritos, suspicious-sounding ingredients like “cheese cultures” and “enzymes” are actually nothing to worry about: “Starter cultures and enzymes are just used to accelerate the process of coagulating milk into cheese. Pretty much all cheese is made using some kind of enzyme to speed up the fermentation process.”
Meanwhile, modified food starch is extracted from the source (usually corn, potatoes and/or tapioca), 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.
Lastly, vitamin A palmitate is simply a compound that acts as a source of vitamin A, which supports vision and the immune system.
4) Pepperoni (Pork, Beef, Salt, Water, Dextrose, Garlic Powder, Sodium Nitrite, BHA, BHT, Citric Acid): Let’s take this one at a time, beginning with pork and beef, which are more than likely of low quality if you consider the past to be a reflection of the future for Hot Pockets: Four years ago, Nestlé recalled 238,000 cases of Philly Steak and Cheese Hot Pockets because their meat supplier processed “diseased and unsound animals” without undergoing a full inspection by the USDA. Yikes.
Dextrose, meanwhile, is a sugar derived from starches, like corn. 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.
Next up: “Sodium nitrite stabilizes the red color in cured meats, which prevents the meat from naturally turning gray,” Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, told me during our analysis of the ingredients in frozen breakfast sandwiches. “Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of nitrosamines (a carcinogen).”
On to butylated hydroxyanisole (aka BHA), which is a common preservative added to prevent products from spoiling. “In lower levels—like those found in foods—some researchers consider BHA to be perfectly safe,” nutritionist David Friedman, author of Food Sanity: How to Eat in a World of Fads and Fiction, previously told us. “On the flip side, the National Toxicology Program has concluded that BHA ‘is reasonably anticipated to be a human carcinogen.’” Generally speaking, BHA is probably worth avoiding as best you can
Then there’s butylated hydroxytoluene (aka BHT), which is another common preservative added to prevent products from spoiling. Studies continue to go back and forth about whether or not it’s carcinogenic, so it’s hard to say whether the small amounts found in this Hot Pocket would cause you any harm
Finally, citric acid naturally occurs in citrus fruits, and it’s often added to foods to extend their shelf life.
5) Tomato Paste: Tomato paste is just tomatoes that have been cooked down, had the seeds and skins removed and then cooked down even more until it turns into a concentrated paste.
6) Soybean Oil: Physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, previously told me that 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). While it’s near impossible to eliminate vegetable oil from your diet altogether — major contributors include processed foods, fried foods, frozen pizzas, cakes, cookies, margarines and coffee creamers — it’s best consumed in moderation.
7) Sugar: For sweetness.
8) Seasoning (Bread Crumb [Bleached Wheat Flour, Dextrose, Yeast, Salt], Dried Garlic, Tomato Powder, Spice, Salt, Dextrose, Dried Onion, Maltodextrin, Citric Acid, Natural Flavor): Because we’ve already covered many of these ingredients — and because some are extremely common — let’s discuss the ones that might not be so easy to understand. Bleached wheat flour, for instance, is similar to enriched flour in that it undergoes the same bleaching process.
Yeast is the fungus that makes dough rise.
What the “spice” is remains a mystery, because as we learned in our exploration of the ingredients in nacho-flavored Doritos, the FDA doesn’t require food labelers to list each spice by their specific name (as a means of protecting their recipes) so long as it follows their definition of the word “spice”:
“The term spice means any aromatic vegetable substance in the whole, broken or ground form, except for those substances which have been traditionally regarded as foods, such as onions, garlic and celery; whose significant function in food is seasoning rather than nutritional; that is true to name; and from which no portion of any volatile oil or other flavoring principle has been removed.”
Lastly, maltodextrin is an artificial sugar made from maltose (aka malt sugar) and dextrose (see above). It’s 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.)
9) Fractionated Palm Oil: Fractionated palm oil essentially has higher concentrations of saturated fat than regular palm oil, which isn’t a good thing: The consumption of saturated fat has traditionally been linked to heart disease, but it’s worth noting that science continues to go back and forth in regard to whether or not saturated fats are actually healthy.
10) Yeast: See above.
11) Salt: For flavor.
12) Modified Food Starch: See above.
13) Dough Conditioner Blend (Calcium Sulfate, Salt, L-Cysteine Hydrochloride, Garlic Powder, Tricalcium Phosphate, Enzymes): Once again, let’s take this one at a time, beginning with calcium sulfate, which is added to stabilize foods and regulate their acidity levels. It can also be used as a flour treatment agent to increase the speed of dough rising and to improve the strength and workability of the dough. In the amounts typically found in food, calcium sulfate isn’t likely to cause adverse effects and is generally regarded as safe by the FDA.
Meanwhile, L-cysteine hydrochloride is an amino acid that lowers the viscosity of the dough, making it easier to work with and helping it rise during baking. While some news outlets have reported that L-cysteine hydrochloride is primarily harvested from human hair sourced from barbershops and hair salons in China, others have argued that this is a bit of a stretch. Whether the L-cysteine hydrochloride in Hot Pockets is, in fact, sourced from human hair remains a mystery with little actual documentation.
Finally, tricalcium phosphate acts, more or less, as a bulking ingredient. One study from the American Thoracic Society found that a diet high in inorganic phosphates, like tricalcium phosphate, may accelerate the development of lung cancer; however, there probably isn’t enough tricalcium phosphate in this loner Hot Pocket to cause you any real problems.
14) Dried Garlic: For more flavor.
15) 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 Hot Pockets mix together. “It’s also frequently used to extend product shelf life,” Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, told me during our analysis of the ingredients in frozen breakfast sandwiches.
16) Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate: This ingredient is a 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.
17) Methylcellulose: Methylcellulose is produced by chemically treating the natural cellulose found in plants, and it’s often used as a thickener and emulsifier.
18) Flavor (Maltodextrin, Modified Corn Starch, Natural Flavors, DATEM, Medium Chain Triglycerides): We already know the first three ingredients listed here, but DATEM (diacetyl tartaric acid esters of monoglycerides) is a potentially harmful dough conditioner, since it’s been found to cause heart problems in lab animals. Whether or not it should be a real point of concern for consumers, however, is still up for debate. Meanwhile, medium chain triglycerides are partially human-made fats. Those with liver disease or diabetes should avoid these, as they can put a lot of pressure on the liver.
19) Spices: See above.
20) Dried Onions: For even more flavor.
21) Natural Butter Flavor: This is flavoring taken from actual butter.
22) 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.
23) Maltodextrin: See above.
24) Potassium Chloride: Potassium chloride is added to food for two reasons: 1) To act as a salt substitute; and 2) to enhance the amount of potassium — an essential and widely under-consumed nutrient — found in the product. While small amounts — like that found in Muscle Milk — shouldn’t do you any harm, Friedman previously warned us of consuming too much of the stuff. “Potassium chloride is used to induce cardiac arrest during executions by lethal injections,” he says. “That should speak volumes as to whether this ingredient belongs in our food supply.”
25) Citric Acid: See above.
26) Soy Flour: Soy flour is an alternative to high-carbohydrate flours (like wheat flour). It boosts protein levels and adds moisture to baked goods.
27) Egg White: You (hopefully) already know this one.
Hot Pockets, as you probably expected, are a clusterfuck of over-processed ingredients. I recommend avoiding them at all costs if you plan on living a long, healthy life. Or even till next Tuesday.