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 with the help of an expert.
1) Enriched Flour (Wheat Flour, Niacin, Reduced 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 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.
2) Sugar: One Pop-Tart contains 19 grams of sugar, which is equivalent to almost five teaspoons. The American Heart Association recommends that men consume no more than 36 grams and women consume no more than 25 grams of added sugar per day.
Too much sugar, if you didn’t already know, is terrible for you: A sugar-laden diet is associated with all kinds of ailments, from heart disease to depression. But then again, this is a frosted frickin’ breakfast cake — what did you expect?
3) High Fructose Corn Syrup: High fructose corn syrup is corn syrup that’s had some of its glucose converted to fructose enzymatically. It’s a commonly used sweetener, and has been linked to obesity and diabetes by many, many studies. So, if possible, you want to avoid foods and drinks containing it.
4) Dextrose: Dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like wheat. 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.
5) Soybean and Palm Oil (with TBHQ for Freshness): Physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, previously told us that consuming too much vegetable oil — which is easy to do, considering she says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions, like 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. Worse yet, as we discovered during our ranking of cooking oils, palm oil is one of the least healthy options available.
TBHQ (tertiary butylhydroquinone), meanwhile, is a preservative that acts like an antioxidant, preventing rancidity and discoloration. Studies cited by the Centers for Science in the Public Interest found that TBHQ promotes the growth of tumors in rats, and the National Library of Medicine says that vision disturbances have been reported by humans after consuming the preservative. While the FDA only allows TBHQ to be added in small amounts, this is still an ingredient to be wary of.
6) Corn Syrup: Corn syrup is a liquid sweetener made of glucose. It doesn’t get as much negative publicity as high-fructose corn syrup, but regular corn syrup can also be debilitating, considering it’s basically liquid sugar.
7) Whole Wheat Flour: Derived by grinding or mashing the whole grain of wheat, whole wheat flour boasts solid amounts of protein, fiber and other nutritional goodies.
8) Bleached Wheat Flour: As you can see by the name, this flour has undergone that pesky bleaching process I mentioned earlier to achieve a whiter appearance, which basically wrecks any potential nutritional benefits.
9) 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.
10) Molasses: Molasses is a viscous product made by refining sugarcane (or sugar beets) into sugar. As we learned in our ranking of sweeteners, molasses is actually a relatively healthy option, all things considered.
11) Cocoa Processed with Alkali: Also known as Dutch process cocoa powder, this has a more earthy flavor than your average cocoa powder. “Consuming large amounts of alkalized cocoa powder is possibly unsafe due to the caffeine content,” Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, warned during our exploration of the ingredients in chocolate Muscle Milk. “This can cause problems for pregnant women, where the caffeine could cross the placenta and enter the bloodstream of the fetus.” Cocoa may also trigger migraines in those susceptible to them.
12) Cornstarch: This is ground up corn grain. It’s gluten-free and primarily acts as a bulking agent.
13) Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Aluminum Phosphate): When combined with baking soda, sodium aluminum phosphate causes a chemical reaction that releases carbon dioxide gas and stimulates a rising effect in baked goods. Unfortunately, studies show a link between aluminum and Alzheimer’s disease, and by consuming sodium aluminum phosphate, you’re consuming aluminum.
14) Milk Chocolate (Sugar, Milk, Cocoa Butter, Chocolate): As we learned during our ranking of chocolates, milk chocolate boasts less heart-healthy cacao and more unhealthy sugar than many other options.
15) Salt: This enhances the flavor.
16) Modified Corn Starch: Modified corn starch is (obviously) extracted from corn, 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.
17) Natural and Artificial Flavors: While natural flavors are quite literally flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., chocolate flavoring taken from real chocolate — 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 previously told me she has no real problem with artificial flavoring: “They’re not killers because they’re added in very, very small quantities to food.”
18) 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, which means it helps the numerous ingredients found in these tarts mix together. In some cases, soy lecithin can also help foods stay fresh while they sit on the shelves.
19) Gelatin: Gelatin is a colorless, flavorless protein derived from various animal parts, so vegetarians and vegans beware. It’s commonly used as a gelling agent. As such, it’s what makes up the bulk of the goo inside these Pop-Tarts.
20) Egg Whites: These are probably added to help thicken the gooey insides or as part of the baking process.
21) Color Added: Artificial colors have a bad reputation, but as Shanahan explained during my 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.
22) Xanthan Gum: Xanthan gum is another relatively harmless ingredient that contributes to the thick, gooey texture within Pop-Tarts. That said, those with bowel issues should keep an eye out for this ingredient, as a study published in the British Journal of Nutrition found it to be a highly efficient laxative.
Look, I know society has come to accept eating literal cake for breakfast. But the fact is, Pop-Tarts are basically just empty wheat calories flavored with a bunch of sugar and a dash of truly horrifying chemicals. So if you eat Pop-Tarts with any regularity, you can probably expect your body to pop in one way or another some time soon.