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: Lunchables (Pizza with Pepperoni), which is made from 53 separate ingredients (some of which have ingredients lists of their own) that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on the H-E-B website, since the ingredients list is nowhere to be found on their own website.
The Pizza Crust
1) Wheat Flour (Enriched Bleached Wheat Flour [Flour, Niacin, Reduced Iron, Thiamine Mononitrate, Riboflavin, Folic Acid], Whole Wheat Flour): 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 that this 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: This can also be found in lakes and rivers.
3) Sugar: One Pizza Lunchables packet contains five grams of sugar, which is an okay amount. 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 (and that doesn’t include sugar found naturally in foods like fruits and vegetables).
4) Glycerin: Glycerin is often used as a thickening agent or sweetener. While the small amounts normally found in foods aren’t an issue, large amounts of glycerin can cause nausea, vomiting and headaches.
5) Soybean Oil: According to physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, soybean oil is the most abundant of vegetable oils. Consuming too much of it — 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 and migraines), as we learned in our exploration of all 26 ingredients in nacho-flavored Doritos.
6) Yeast: Yeast is a fungus that makes dough rise.
7) Vital Wheat Gluten: This is a natural protein found in wheat, and adding small amounts to bread that’s being made with yeast can improve the texture and elasticity of the dough.
8) Mono and Diglycerides: This ingredient is typically added to food products as an emulsifier. In simpler terms, it helps all the ingredients properly blend together. But as we learned in our 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.
9) Salt: This is added for flavor. One Pizza Lunchables packet has 740 milligrams of sodium, which is about 32 percent of the suggested daily intake — the American Heart Association recommends consuming no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, and in an ideal world, they say that most adults should have no more than 1,500 milligrams. That’s because too much sodium has been linked to high blood pressure, as well as increased risk for heart disease and kidney disease.
10) Xanthan Gum: Xanthan gum is a thickening agent, and 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) Calcium Propionate: 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. Good thing they put it in a food literally made for children!
12) Sorbic Acid: A preservative used for its antimicrobial properties, sorbic acid is on the FDA’s list of “generally recognized as safe,” or GRAS, substances.
13) Natural and Artificial Flavor: While natural flavors are literally flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., tomato flavoring taken from a real tomato — artificial flavors are chemical compounds created in a lab that mimic a natural flavor in some way. While that may sound unhealthy, as Shanahan told us in our nacho-flavored Doritos post, these flavorings are added in such small quantities that they shouldn’t cause you any harm.
14) Enzyme: Enzymes are often added to bread dough to help break down the starches, which allows for fermentation — a vital aspect of breadmaking.
The Pizza Sauce
1) Water: More H2O.
2) 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.
3) Sugar: See above.
4) Modified Food Starch: Modified food starch is extracted from the source (corn, potato, tapioca, rice or wheat), 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 or possibly more bulk.
5) Garlic Powder: Yep, you guessed it, just dehydrated, ground garlic.
6) Salt: More flavor!
7) Onion Powder: This is another easy one — dehydrated, ground onion used for flavoring.
8) Spice: This is exactly what it sounds like: Concentrated spices added for flavor. What these spices are, however, remains a mystery, because 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.”
9) Citric Acid: Citric acid is a sour flavoring agent derived from citrus and is often used to keep foods like ready-made pasta sauce fresh, even if they’ve been sitting on the shelf for months at a time.
10) Dried Basil: C’mon, you know this one.
11) Sea Salt: Just more salt — nothing to see here.
12) Potassium Sorbate (Added as a Preservative): 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.
13) Xanthan Gum: See above.
14) Natural Flavor: See above.
Pepperoni Made with Pork, Chicken and Beef (BHA, BHT and Citric Acid Added to Help Protect Flavor)
1) Pork: It’s incredibly difficult to say for certain which parts of the pig are in these pepperoni slices, since the Department of Agriculture appears to be fairly lenient with regard to pizza toppings (if that even applies to Pizza Lunchables). Its Food Standards and Labeling Policy Book, the only real stipulation I could find, states that “up to 25 percent of Meat Block” used to produce meat toppings on pizza may contain partially defatted chopped pork or beef, which are byproducts produced from fatty trimmings containing less than 12 percent lean meat. All in all, this isn’t high-quality pork.
2) Mechanically Separated Chicken: Mechanically separated chicken is a paste created by pressing unstripped chicken bones through a sieve to separate edible meat tissue (including tendons and muscle fibers) from the bones. This paste is then added to these pepperonis. Is your mouth watering yet?
3) Beef: This, too, is used in the pepperoni — the info about pork above also applies.
4) Salt: Yep, more salt.
5) Pork Stock: Pork stock is made by simmering various parts of a pig (including the bones) in a mixture of spices and water, which adds flavor.
6) Spices (Including Mustard): See above.
7) Dextrose: Dextrose 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 levels if they become dangerously low. Because of this blood-sugar-boosting effect, consuming dextrose also provides an almost immediate jolt of energy — and then the inevitable crash.
8) Lactic Acid Starter Culture: Lactic acid starter cultures are natural preservatives derived from vegetable sources, like beets or corn.
10) Flavoring: What exactly this flavoring is remains unclear.
11) Sodium Ascorbate: This is more or less just a fancy name for vitamin C.
12) Sodium Nitrite: “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 us while we were exploring the ingredients in frozen breakfast sandwiches. “Adding nitrite to food can lead to the formation of small amounts of nitrosamines (a carcinogen).”
13) BHA: Butylated hydroxyanisole (aka, BHA) 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.
14) BHT: Butylated hydroxytoluene (aka, BHT) 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 meager amounts found in these Lunchables would cause you or your kids any harm.
15) Citric Acid: See above.
Mozzarella Pasteurized Prepared Cheese Product
1) Pasteurized Part-Skim Milk: Pasteurized milk has been treated with heat to eliminate pathogens and lengthen its shelf life.
2) Water: You (hopefully) drink this.
3) Milk Protein Concentrate: Milk protein concentrate is a form of powdered milk that provides the same proteins found in fresh milk. As such, this contributes to the 14 grams of protein found in each one of these Lunchables.
4) Salt: …moving on.
5) Sodium Citrate: Sodium citrate is the sodium salt of citric acid (a sour flavoring agent and preservative derived from citrus). It acts as a preservative and can provide a sour taste when added in high amounts.
6) Milkfat: Milkfat is the fatty portion of milk, which is usually added to processed foods as a means of adding heartiness and oftentimes a sort of creamy texture.
7) Cheese Culture: As Shanahan 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.”
8) Sorbic Acid (As a Preservative): See above.
9) Enzymes: See “cheese cultures” above.
10) Cellulose Powder (Added to Prevent Caking): These are tiny plant fibers that essentially keep the cheese from clumping by blocking out moisture.
Much like their grown-up equivalent, feeding a child — or anyone at all, really — Pizza Lunchables is a bad idea. Mono and diglycerides might contain hidden trans fats, which could up their chances of developing heart disease and diabetes or having a stroke; calcium propionate pretty much turns children into crazy monkey beasts (nobody has time for that); and both BHA as well as BHT are likely carcinogens. Then there’s the “meat,” which is… well, just plain gross.