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.
The Cheddar Cheese
1) Cheddar Cheese (Cultured Pasteurized Milk, Salt, Enzymes, Annatto): These are all pretty standard ingredients in processed cheeses. Milk is cultured by adding the lactic acid bacteria Streptococcus lactis, which results in an acidic, zesty and thick milk product, also known as cultured buttermilk. The milk being pasteurized just means it’s been heated to kill any lingering pathogens.
2) Anti-Caking Agent: They don’t specify, but there’s a good chance this is cellulose, aka wood pulp, which is often added to shredded cheeses to keep them from clumping. Yum!
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 can end up being far less “enriched” than the name would have you believe. 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. Whether or not that applies to this enriched flour is hard to say.
2) Water: Together, water and flour make dough.
3) Vegetable Shortening (Soybean, Hydrogenated Soybean and/or Cottonseed Oil): Vegetable shortening — which is composed of soybean, 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: All said and done, a single Beefy 5-Layer Burrito contains 5 grams of sugar, which isn’t a ton, but maybe more than you’d expect from a burrito.
5) Salt: One Beefy 5-Layer Burrito has a whopping 1,250 milligrams of salt, which comes to 52 percent of your daily recommended intake.
6) Leavening (Baking Soda, Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate): Sodium acid pyrophosphate is an acid that, when combined with baking soda, releases carbon dioxide gas, which causes baked goods to rise. Even though it has an intimidatingly long name, it’s safe in moderate amounts.
7) Molasses: Molasses is made by refining sugarcane and sugar beets, a plant that contains a lot of sucrose, a common sugar. It has more antioxidants than white sugar, but again, should be limited because we all eat too much sugar already.
8) Dough Conditioner (Fumaric Acid, Distilled Monoglycerides, Enzymes, Vital Wheat Gluten, Cellulose Gum, Wheat Starch, Calcium Carbonate): Let’s take these one at a time, beginning with fumaric acid, which is used as a preservative and mold inhibitor. The FDA considers it to be safe when added in small amounts.
Distilled monoglycerides are effective crumb softeners and prevent staling. However, they may be packed with trans fats that aren’t listed on the nutrition facts label. Because trans fats are associated with an increased risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes, consuming more than you think you are (because they weren’t listed on the label) could do serious damage to your body.
Those with celiac disease beware: Vital wheat gluten is wheat flour that’s been hydrated to activate the gluten, then processed to remove everything except the gluten. It’s added to improve the chewiness of the tortilla.
Cellulose gum is a common thickening agent, and consuming large amounts of it may add bulk to your stool and have a laxative effect, according to the FDA. Then again, so does everything else at Taco Bell.
Wheat starch is a basic thickener.
And finally, calcium carbonate, a calcium supplement, can reduce overly soft or sticky dough.
9) Calcium Propionate: Calcium propionate is an antifungal agent added to many 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. So if you have a kid, maybe limit their Beefy 5-Layer consumption.
10) Sorbic Acid: Another 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 a widely-used preservative. It has the capacity to damage DNA when exposed to human blood cells, according to a 2010 study published in Toxicology in Vitro; however, long-term studies on the effects of regularly consuming the ingredient are required to provide a more definitive answer on the matter.
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The Nacho Cheese Sauce
1) Nonfat Milk: It comes from cows.
2) Cheese Whey: Whey is essentially the liquid leftovers after milk has been curdled and strained. It adds creaminess to this cheese sauce.
3) Water: You can also find this in rivers and lakes.
4) Vegetable Oil (Canola Oil, Soybean Oil): See above.
5) Modified Food Starch: Modified food starch is extracted from the source (usually corn, potatoes and/or tapioca), then treated physically, enzymatically or chemically to partially break down the starch. It’s likely used as a thickening agent, helping to make this sauce extra gooey.
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: It’s hard to say what exactly this natural flavor is, but more generally, natural flavors are flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., cheese flavoring taken from real cheese.
8) Salt: We’re going to see a lot of this ingredient.
9) Dipotassium Phosphate: When we were looking into the ingredients in Muscle Milk, Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight, 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: For spice.
11) Vinegar: This provides some tartness to help cut through the otherwise creamy sweetness of the cheese sauce.
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 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, which is probably the real reason why it’s in Beefy 5-Layers.
15) Sodium Stearoyl Lactylate: Sodium stearoyl lactylate is an emulsifier, helping the multiple ingredients in this sauce mix together. 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 and is often added to foods to extend their shelf life. In higher amounts, it also tastes sour.
17) Annatto and Oleoresin Paprika: We already talked about annatto, but oleoresin paprika is another natural coloring agent that makes this cheese sauce appear extra yellow.
The Reduced-Fat Sour Cream
1) Milk: Or cow juice, as true intellectuals call it.
2) Cream: The fatty portion of milk.
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. These are usually added as texturizers and emulsifiers, which allows for the uniform dispersion of numerous ingredients.
One study suggests phosphate additives like this one contribute to the prevalence of chronic kidney disease, and the FDA even issued a safety warning concerning the use of sodium phosphate products to treat constipation. In other words, this is definitely an ingredient to watch out for.
8) Natural Flavor: See above.
9) Cellulose Gel: Cellulose gel is another form of cellulose gum. It’s basically just wood fibers, and it’s probably used to add bulk to this sour cream.
10) Potassium Sorbate: See above.
11) Cellulose Gum: See above.
12) Guar Gum: Guar gum is made from guar beans and 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. Again, 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 safe, and more recent human studies take the FDA’s side on this one.
15) Vitamin A: Sour cream is normally high in vitamin A, which helps with all sorts of bodily functions.
The Refried Beans
1) Pinto Beans: As far as beans go, pinto beans are decently healthy, boasting plenty of antioxidants and some heart-boosting effects, too.
2) Soybean Oil: See above.
3) Seasoning (Salt, Sugar, Spice, Beet Powder, Natural Flavors, Sunflower Oil, Maltodextrin, Corn Flour, Trehalose, Modified Cornstarch): You already know most of these, but there are a few new ingredients: Beet powder is simply used for its purple-ish coloring, and trehalose is a type of sugar found naturally in mushrooms, seafood and seeds. It’s particularly useful in the food industry because it shields cells from freezing and dehydration, which makes sense, since the beans arrive at Taco Bell stores dehydrated.
The Seasoned Beef
1) Beef: Taco Bell’s beef has a long history of nasty incidents, including horse meat appearing in their European products back in 2013. It’s hard to speak specifically to the quality of their beef nowadays, but they are part of the U.S. Roundtable for Sustainable Beef (USRSB). Unfortunately, that doesn’t mean all that much — the USRSB has been harshly criticized for not putting their money where their mouth is.
2) Water: Gotta love wet meat.
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 & 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 Beefy 5-Layers 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 (and especially Beefy 5-Layer Burritos).
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.
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: More flavor.
5) Sodium Phosphates: See above.
The Beefy 5-Layer Burrito has five layers all right: Salt, preservatives, flavor enhancers, salt and more salt.