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.
This edition: Taco Bell’s Crunchwrap Supreme, which is made from 51 separate ingredients (well, kinda), some of which have ingredients list of their own, that we’ve broken down in the exact order they appear online.
The Flour Tortilla
1) Enriched 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 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) Water: This helps plants grow.
3) Vegetable Shortening (Soybean, Hydrogenated Soybean and Cottonseed Oil): Vegetable shortening — which is composed of hydrogenated soybean or cottonseed oil in this case — can be used as a pan coating to prevent the tortillas from sticking, but it can also give baked goods a crumbly texture.
Hydrogenated oil, however, is highly unhealthy in large amounts: When you add hydrogen to food via hydrogenation — which many manufacturers do to increase the 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. So watch out for this ingredient.
4) Sugar: One Crunchwrap Supreme contains six grams of sugar — a reasonable amount. 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.
5) Salt: One Crunchwrap Supreme contains way too much salt — 1,200 milligrams to be exact. 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.
6) Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate): When we explored the ingredients in frozen breakfast sandwiches, Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, explained that sodium acid pyrophosphate causes “a chemical reaction when combined with baking soda to release carbon dioxide gas and form a rising effect in baked goods.” Otherwise, this is a harmless ingredient.
7) 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.
8) Dough Conditioner (Fumaric Acid, Distilled Monoglycerides, Enzymes, Vital Wheat Gluten, Cellulose Gum, Wheat Starch, Calcium Carbonate): Going one at a time, fumaric acid reduces the amount of time the dough needs to rise. Distilled monoglycerides help oil and water blend together, which can improve the texture of dough. Enzymes are often added to bread dough to help break down the starches, which allows for fermentation, a vital aspect of breadmaking. Vital wheat gluten 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. Cellulose gum is a common thickening agent, but consuming large amounts of it may add bulk to your stool and have a laxative effect, according to the FDA. Wheat starch helps with moisture retention. Lastly, calcium carbonate acts as a both a calcium supplement and pH regulator. None of these ingredients are particularly harmful. Woo-hoo!
9) Calcium Propionate: Calcium propionate is an antifungal agent 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.
10) 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.
11) Potassium Sorbate: Potassium sorbate is another 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.
The Iceberg Lettuce
1) Fresh Iceberg Lettuce: This grows from the ground.
The Nacho Cheese Sauce
1) Nonfat Milk: This has another name: Skim milk.
2) Cheese 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.
3) Water: You know this one already.
4) Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, 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 (canola, soybean, sunflower or corn) — which is easy to do, considering Shanahan says roughly 45 percent of the average American’s calories come from refined oils — has serious repercussions (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.
5) Modified Food Starch: Often used as a thickening agent, 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.
6) Maltodextrin: An artificial sugar made from maltose (aka malt sugar) and dextrose (a sugar derived from starches), maltodextrin is 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.)
7) Natural Flavors: Natural flavors are literally flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., cheese flavoring taken from real cheese.
8) Salt: Yep, more salt.
9) Dipotassium Phosphate: When we were looking into the ingredients in Muscle Milk, Xavier explained, “Dipotassium phosphate is an acidity regulator, antioxidant, sequestrant and stabilizer.” Studies suggest those with kidney disease monitor their dipotassium phosphate intake, as too much phosphorus in the blood can contribute to developing bone, heart and kidney disease.
10) Jalapeño Puree: This adds a bit of spice.
11) Vinegar: This adds a slightly tart flavor.
12) 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.
13) Cellulose Gum: See dough conditioners above.
14) Potassium Citrate: This is a potassium supplement, and increasing your potassium intake can help lower your blood pressure and protect against muscle cramping, according to Harvard Medical School. In some cases, potassium citrate can also help stabilize foods and regulate their acidity levels.
15) 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.
16) Citric Acid: Citric acid naturally occurs in citrus fruits; it’s often added to foods to extend their shelf life.
17) Annatto and Oleoresin Paprika: These make the cheese yellow.
Reduced-Fat Sour Cream
1) Milk: This comes from cows.
2) Cream: Cream is a thick layer of fat that rises to the top of milk before it undergoes homogenization, a process that breaks down the fat molecules in milk to prevent them from separating. Despite tasting awesome, cream contains a whole load of potentially unhealthy fat.
3) Modified Corn Starch: See modified food starch above.
4) Lactic Acid: See above.
5) Maltodextrin: See above.
6) Citric Acid: See above.
7) 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.
8) Natural Flavor: See above.
9) Cellulose Gel: See cellulose gum above.
10) Potassium Sorbate: See above.
11) Cellulose Gum: See above.
12) Guar Gum: Derived from guar beans, this acts as a stabilizer and thickener to improve texture.
13) Locust Bean Gum: Locust bean gum is a natural food additive derived from carob seeds. Similar to guar gum, it’s used primarily as a thickening and stabilizing agent.
14) Carrageenan: This is widely used in the food industry for its gelling, thickening and stabilizing properties. Some animal studies argue that there’s a connection between carrageenan ingestion and inflammatory bowel disease; however, the FDA lists the ingredient as a Generally Recognized as Safe Substance. And more recent human studies take the FDA’s side on this one.
15) Vitamin A: Animal products like sour cream are natural sources of vitamin A, which supports eyesight, the immune system and bone health.
2) Water: This cascades from my eyes when I see how many ingredients are in the next item on this list.
3) Seasoning (Cellulose, Chili Pepper, Maltodextrin, Salt, Oats, Soy Lecithin, Spices, Tomato Powder, Sugar, Onion Powder, Citric Acid, Natural Flavors — Including Smoke Flavor — Torula Yeast, Cocoa, Disodium Inosinate and Guanylate, Dextrose, Lactic Acid, Modified Corn Starch): Starting from the beginning — and skipping over any super obvious ingredients, or those we’ve already covered — cellulose is essentially the structural component of all plants. It’s often added to foods to provide a meaty texture.
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 Crunchwraps mix together. Torula yeast, meanwhile, is a type of yeast that has a smoky and savory flavor. It’s recently become a popular replacement for the flavor enhancer monosodium glutamate (MSG), since it improves the texture and flavor of most foods. Fortunately, it’s healthier than MSG, too (more on that here). Cocoa is used to make chocolate, and Taco Bell specifically uses it to darken the color of their meat.
Disodium inosinate is a savory flavor enhancer that’s almost always used in conjunction with MSG and disodium guanylate (more on that in a moment). 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. Also used in conjunction with MSG and disodium inosinate, 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. That said, 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, some ground beef — to quell the negative effects.
Finally, since you already know the rest, dextrose is a sugar derived from starches, like corn. 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. Because of this blood-sugar-boosting effect, consuming dextrose also provides an almost immediate jolt of energy — followed by an inevitable crash.
4) Salt: Even more salt.
5) Sodium Phosphates: See above.
1) Fresh Tomatoes: Fun fact: Tomatoes are actually a fruit.
1) Ground Corn: This is used to make the crunchy shell.
2) Vegetable Oil (Soybean, Corn, Sunflower, Cottonseed Oil): You already know all about these.
The famed Crunchwrap Supreme contains a combination of dangerous preservatives (namely, calcium propionate and potassium sorbate); phosphates that may contribute to kidney disease; and flavor enhancers (disodium inosinate and disodium guanylate) that make you feel like shit. Perhaps more troublesome, though, is the fact that these wraps are brimming with fats that can wreck your heart and enough sodium to turn you into a pickle.
The one thing we can be glad about, though, is the fact that Taco Bell revamped their menu in 2017 to remove unnecessary additives, like high fructose corn syrup and unnatural food dyes, which means the modern Crunchwrap Supreme is at the very least healthier than the old version, hard as that may be to believe. Even so, the only real “supreme” aspect of this Crunchwrap is how supremely unhealthy it is.