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: Hidden Valley Original Ranch Dressing, which is made from 20 separate ingredients that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear on their website.
1) Vegetable Oil (Soybean and/or Canola): Physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, previously told us that consuming too much vegetable oil (sunflower, canola or corn) — which is easy to do, considering she 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 nearly 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.
2) Water: You (hopefully) drink this one.
3) Egg Yolk: Egg yolk provides this dressing with a fluffy, thick texture. It also totally won’t kill you: “Commercial mayonnaise, dressing and sauces contain pasteurized eggs that are safe to eat,” according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration
4) Sugar: For sweetness.
5) Salt: For flavor.
6) Cultured Nonfat Buttermilk: Cultured nonfat 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.
7) Natural Flavors (Milk, Soy): Natural flavor is quite literally flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., milk flavoring taken from real milk.
8) Spices: What these spices are 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.”
9) Dried Garlic: For more flavor.
10) Dried Onion: For even MORE flavor.
11) Vinegar: This adds a slightly tart flavor.
12) Phosphoric Acid: Phosphoric acid is added to sauces to provide a sharper, more tart flavor as well. It also acts as a preservative to prevent the growth of mold and bacteria. Shanahan previously told us that there’s no real reason to be concerned about the negative effects of phosphoric acid unless you’re prone to heartburn or acid reflux, in which case, the high acidity may induce inflammation.
13) 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.
14) 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, but in this case, it likely adds a hearty thickness to the dressing.
15) Monosodium Glutamate: Best known as MSG, monosodium glutamate is a naturally occurring amino acid (one of the building blocks of protein) that’s added to foods as a savory flavor enhancer. Despite having a bad reputation for causing insatiable hunger, the food industry has no problem using it because it occurs in nature.
And while Shanahan sort of agrees, there’s some room for worry. “Eating MSG without a high-protein ingredient in the food is a huge blast of MSG all at once, and some people are very sensitive to that,” she told us during our analysis of Doritos. “They’ll get headaches, and some people who get seizures say they’ll get a seizure aura [that is, the feeling you get right before you experience a seizure].” Researchers, however, haven’t come to any decisive conclusions about the negative effects of MSG.
16) Artificial Flavors: Artificial flavors are chemical compounds created in a lab that mimic a natural flavor in some way, and while that may sound unnatural (and thus, unhealthy), Shanahan previously told us that she has no real problem with artificial flavors: “They’re not killers because they’re added in very, very small quantities to food.”
17) Disodium Phosphate: Disodium phosphate has various uses in food, but in this dressing, it likely helps keep the oil- and water-based ingredients, which would otherwise separate, mixed together. It’s on the FDA’s list of “generally recognized as safe” (or GRAS) substances; however, a 2012 study argues that all phosphates are hazardous. According to their research, accumulating phosphates in the body can cause organ calcification, even in people without kidney problems. Still, the International Food Additives Council claims that phosphates have a long history of being safely used in foods. So as usual, more research is needed to come to a definitive conclusion.
18) Sorbic Acid and Calcium Disodium EDTA: Sorbic acid is a preservative used for its antimicrobial properties, and it’s also on the FDA’s list of GRAS substances. Calcium disodium EDTA, meanwhile, “binds to metals like iron, which slows the rate of oxidation, and thus, the development of rancid aromas,” Gavin Lavi Sacks, associate professor and academic director of Cornell University’s Food Science & Technology at Geneva Program, explained to us during our analysis of the many, many ingredients in the Big Mac.
Because it binds to metals, studies performed on animals have shown that sustained consumption of calcium disodium EDTA can cause essential mineral depletion. As for what it does to people, human studies are still required to come to a real conclusion on whether or not we should be worried about this ingredient.
19) Disodium Inosinate: A savory flavor enhancer that’s almost always used in conjunction with MSG and disodium guanylate. It’s a purine, meaning it’s one of the building blocks of DNA, and thus, it’s often derived from animal origin like beef, pork, poultry and fish. So if you’re a vegetarian or a vegan, be sure to avoid products containing disodium inosinate.
20) Disodium Guanylate: Also used in conjunction with MSG and disodium inosinate (see above), disodium guanylate has a savory taste that essentially allows manufacturers to increase the flavor of food without loading it with sodium. The risk of consuming too much of this stuff is more or less the same as MSG — i.e., headaches and nausea. Again, though, Shanahan previously told us there’s no reason to worry about these flavor enhancers as long as you consume them alongside some kind of protein — like, say, a slab of turkey — to quell the negative effects.
That side of ranch dressing certainly isn’t doing you any good — especially if you put it on literally everything (guilty): It’s basically just an extra dose of vegetable oil flavored with fat and MSG that’s been pumped full of preservatives. One serving of ranch (two tablespoons) also amounts to 140 calories, so even just a few dollops on that slice of pizza puts you significantly closer to your recommended daily intake: The average woman should consume no more than 2,000 calories per day in order to maintain her weight, and the average man should consume no more than 2,500 calories. Still, so long as you’re not guzzling the stuff straight out of the bottle, a little ranch here and there is probably the least of your nutritional worries.