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.
1) 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.
2) Milk: This comes from cows. Duh.
3) Canola Oil: Canola oil contains healthy fats that may lower cholesterol and reduce your risk for heart disease, according to numerous studies. But of course, there’s a catch: Physician and biochemist Cate Shanahan, author of Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food, previously told us that consuming too much vegetable oil (canola, sunflower 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.
4) 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.)
5) Milk Protein Concentrate: This is literally a concentrated version of the same proteins found in fresh milk. “It comes as a powder that can be added to products to keep them moist, boost their protein content, enhance flavor, extend shelf-life and improve texture,” explains Dagan Xavier, ingredient expert and co-founder of Label Insight.
6) 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.
7) 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 probably added to Cheez Whiz as a thickening agent.
8) Salt: For flavor.
9) Lactic Acid: Lactic acid is another 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.
10) Whey Protein Concentrate: Whey protein concentrate is usually added to processed cheese, like Cheez Whiz, because studies show that it improves the body, texture and spreadability of the cheese.
11) Mustard Flour: This is just another name for mustard powder, which adds flavor.
12) Worcestershire Sauce (Vinegar, Molasses, Corn Syrup, Water, Salt, Caramel Color, Garlic Powder, Sugar, Spices [Contains Celery], Tamarind, Natural Flavor): There are two potentially problematic ingredients in this Worcestershire sauce: Corn syrup and caramel color. Corn syrup is a liquid sweetener made of glucose. It doesn’t get as much negative publicity as high-fructose corn syrup — which has been linked to obesity and diabetes by many, many studies (more on that here) — but regular corn syrup can also be debilitating, considering it’s basically liquid sugar.
As we discovered in our exploration of the eight ingredients that make up Diet Coke, caramel coloring has an incredibly controversial byproduct called 4-methylimidazole (4-MEI): A 2007 study found that mice fed a diet of 4-MEI developed cancerous lung tumors as a result. The FDA quickly pushed back, noting that a human would have to consume more than 1,000 cans of soft drinks (which are notoriously high in caramel coloring) every day for two years to reach comparable levels of 4-MEI.
Who’s right is still unclear. More recent studies argue that levels of 4-MEI are, in fact, high enough in soda and consumed in sufficient quantities by Americans to increase the risk of developing cancer. Do you really have to worry about this in your Cheez Whiz, though? Probably not.
13) Sodium Alginate: This is a natural food additive that basically improves the texture by optimizing moisture levels.
14) 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.
15) Color Added: While certain artificial colors are known to be carcinogenic, Shanahan assures us that a normal person’s liver should have no problem breaking down whatever minuscule amounts of coloring we consume with our food.
16) Cheese Culture: Finally, something with “cheese” in the name — besides, you know, the name of the product itself. As Shanahan explained to us during our analysis of Doritos, suspicious-sounding ingredients like “cheese cultures” and “enzymes” are actually nothing to worry about: “Starter cultures and enzymes are just used to accelerate the process of coagulating milk into cheese. Pretty much all cheese is made using some kind of enzyme to speed up the fermentation process.”
17) Enzymes: See above.
18) Natural Flavor: Natural flavors are flavors derived from an actual food source — i.e., cheese flavoring taken from real cheese.
This certainly isn’t cheese, and while it does contain several potentially harmful ingredients — namely, sodium phosphate and caramel color — my biggest issue with Cheez Whiz is the amount of sodium in it: A mere two tablespoons contains 410 milligrams, or nearly 20 percent of the American Heart Association’s daily recommended intake. So please promise me that you’ll take it easy on the Whiz, okay?