What's in your food? Untangling ingredient confusion

May 21, 2012 8:18:37 PM PDT
Revelations about "pink slime" found in ground beef has many people now asking what else in there? Action News went digging for answers.

Jill Florin of Dresher likes her kids to eat healthy and natural foods.

She reads all food labels and ingredients but says sometimes it's overwhelming.

"If I get to a point that there's more ingredients that I don't understand and can't pronounce, then I give up and put the food back on the shelf," Florin says.

Over the past few decades thousands of chemicals have been created to enhance flavors, preserve colors and extend the shelf life of food.

Chef and author Christina Pirello says if you are trying to eat all-natural, then less is more meaning the fewer ingredients listed, the better.

"If the ingredients panel reads like a War and Peace, you're really in trouble," Pirello says.

And she says be careful of tricky wording. NO trans fats is different than zero trans fats ADDED.

"If something says "zero trans fats added" you can be guaranteed that they're in it already, they just didn't add any more,"

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is another ingredient hidden in some foods. Even though a product says "no MSG added," it may still be in within OTHER ingredients. It is used as both a flavor and color enhancer.

And while 'pink slime' in ground beef has now been banned from many stores, there is a lesser-known filler that's been nicknamed 'white slime' in many hot dogs and bologna. It's not listed as an additive. It's purely labeled as "mechanically separated" chicken, pork or turkey.

As for other tricks, if something is "natural,' it just has to be from nature at some point, but it can still be transformed into mostly chemicals.

On the flip side, scientist Ara derMarderosian, Ph.D., of the University of the Sciences, says some ingredients that sound complex may actually be natural, such as polysaccharides.

"Which is a complex word that means it is a sugar derivative which has been linked together like starch to give you the body or the weight you need," says Dr. DerMarderosian.

Still, he says the more processed a food is, the less nutritious it becomes.

But while many think of science in our food system is bad, John Floros, Ph.D., of the Penn State's food science department points out it's helped us waste less and feed more.

Plus, in many cases, not having preservatives could be harmful.

"For example, if you have some mold growth in grains, in other food materials, molds may not be the issue by themselves but they produce toxins. Those toxins can be cancerous," says Dr. Floros.

And not all means of preserving food is through chemicals. Packaged apple slices popular in markets now are kept fresh just by controlling the environment in the packaging.

"We try to reduce the amount of oxygen down to the proper level, and elevate the CO2 in their immediate environment," explains Dr. Floros.

Dr. DerMarderosian explained some other commonly seen ingredients:

EDTA - a stabilizer. It is used in salad dressings and sandwich spreads as a preservative, and in canned beans for color retention. It is also used in alcoholic beverages for stability and color.

Sodium alginate, or other substances with "agar" or "algae" in their names - fillers made from seaweed. They are used to give a product body.

Maltodextrin - a starch commonly used in candy, soda, and many instant foods.

But because there are so many additives, and there are always more coming, it's tough to keep up with what's natural and what's not.

The Center For Science in the Public Interest has a list of the most-used additives on its website, as well as definitions, to look them up to find out what they are and if they are safe or questionable.