Take it from a Chemist: What are all those big names doing in my snacks and supps?

Working in the Lab May 2014 1 Lightened


I’m notorious for turning my snacks around and checking out the ingredient listings on the back. After all, I work with lots of these materials every day!

Take it from a chemist! They’re not all as scary as they sound (some are though)! Interested in what some of them do? Let’s take a deeper look!


What's on the Menu

A preservative is a substance added to a product to prevent decomposition or growth of mold and bacteria – or in other words – to keep its freshness.
  • Lactic Acid – Found in sour milk products (kefir, yogurt, cottage cheese); Used to extend shelf life, enhance (sour) flavor, regulate acidity, and reduce stickiness of products
  • Sodium Benzoate – Anti-fungal and anti-bacterial; Works by lowering the pH of cells rendering them uninhabitable for pathogen growth
  • Potassium Sorbate – Inhibits mold and yeast growth; Though it is often used at levels where there have been no adverse effects found, there are some studies out there that show when Potassium Sorbate is mixed with Ascorbic Acid (Vitamin C) it can cause DNA damage
  • Sodium Citrate – Is a salt of citric acid which (like citric acid) has a sour taste and (like a salt) has a salty taste; It is commonly known as sour salt and is used to enhance flavor and as a preservative
Are substances added to liquids to make them firmer and enhance viscosity.
  • Cellulose Gum – Comes from the cell wall of plants (mainly cotton seeds and wood pulp); Adds texture and has the ability to form films
  • Xanthan Gum – Food thickening agent; Helps tp suspend particles or keep a product uniform; Used to replace gluten in gluten-free baking because it can impart a “stickiness” to the dough/batter, One cool property of Xanthan Gum is that it’s “sheer thinning” – i.e. when a product with Xanthan Gum is subjected to shear (mixing, shaking, chewing, spreading, etc..) it will thin out, BUT! once the shear forces are removed, the food will thicken back up (Think MAYONAISE, KETCHUP or even SALAD DRESSING!)
  • Carrageenan – Extracted from seaweed; gels and thickens products; Used mainly in dairy & meat because they bind well to proteins; Vegetarian & vegan alternative to gelatin
  • Guar Gum – Made from guar beans; Has 8 times the water thickening ability of cornstarch; inhibits ice crystal growth (Think like in ICE CREAM!); Found a lot in gluten-free products
  • Tapioca Starch – Starchy flour with sweet flavor from the cassava plant; thickener
  • Carob Gum – Locust bean gum; Extracted from the beans of the carob tree; Sweet tasting (similar to chocolate) and can be used to sweeten foods as well
  • Cornstarch – Derived from corn; can thicken or be used for anti-caking (when mixed with other powders)



Food additives that are sugar substitutes. They can often provide a sweet taste like that of sugar while containing significantly less calories. Some sugar substitutes are produced by nature, while others are produced synthetically. (Artificial sweeteners are so fascinating to me!!! I could seriously write an entire article on them alone!!!!)
  • Sucralose – Artificial sweetener (Think Splenda); Is about 320 to 1,000 times sweeter than sucrose (Sugar), 3 times sweeter than aspartame (Equal), and twice as sweet as saccharin (Sweet’N Low); The majority of sucralose ingested is not broken down by the body which is why it tends to not have calories associated with it; It’s huge commercial success is all thanks to its favorability in taste, stability, and safety in comparison to other sugar substitutes
  • Erythritol – Is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol; Is 60-70% as sweet as sucrose (Sugar); Is almost noncaloric (95% less than sugar at 0.2 kcal per gram); Does not affect blood sugar; Does not cause tooth decay; and is partially absorbed by the body; Of all the sugar alcohols (maltitol, sorbitol, etc..) – is the least likely to cause gas
  • Maltitol – Is a sugar alcohol, Is 75-90% as sweet as sucrose (Sugar); Can cause laxative effects (so can Xylitol); It is half as caloric as sugar (2-3 kcal per gram); Has a somewhat lesser effect on blood sugar; Does not cause tooth decay;
  • Maltodextrin – Moderately sweet to almost flavorless; Easy to digest; Can be used to enhance mouthfeel & texture; Thickens; Is a quickly digestible carbohydrate that can supply the body with energy (which is why it is found in supplements)
  • Acesulfame Potassium – Is a calorie-free sugar substitute; Is 200 times sweeter than sucrose (Sugar), as sweet as aspartame (Equal), about 2/3 as sweet as saccharin (Sweet’N Low), and 1/3 as sweet as sucralose (Splenda); Has a slightly bitter aftertaste (like saccharin/Sweet’N Low)
  • Steviol Glycoside (Stevia) – The chemical compound responsible for the sweet taste of the leaves of the Stevia plant; 30-320 times sweeter than sucrose (Sugar); Do not induce a glycemic response;
  • Fructose – Fruit sugar; Derived from sugar cane, sugar beets, and corn; High fructose corn syrup is a combination of Fructose & Glucose; Taste enhancer; Responsible for the browning of some baked goods


  • Beta Carotene – A strongly colored red-orange pigment in plants and fruits (Think Carrots!); Used as a food coloring; Can also be used as a supplement
  • Glycerine – Colorless, odorless, sweet tasting, non-toxic, thick liquid; Used as a :solvent, sweetner, thickener, filler, preservative, and humectant in foods (The EVERY ingredient!); Has approximately 27 kcals per teaspoon (sugar has 20 kcals per teaspoon) and is 60% as sweet as sucrose;Does not cause tooth decay; Has a low glycemix index number
  • Soy Lecithin – Yellow-brownish fatty substance that occurrs in animal and plant tissues; Helps to emulsify or lubricate foods; Reduces viscosity and aids in flow of products; Can be used as a filler; Improves shelf life, Stabilized emulsions (Think MAYONAISE or SALAD DRESSING!); etc.. etc.. (Another EVERY ingredient!)
  • Calcium Carbonate – Common substance found in rocks and minerals; Used medicinally as an inexpensive dietary calcium supplement or antacid; Used as an acidity regulator or anti-caing agent
  • Carmine – Pigment of a bright red color obtained from insects; Used to color products
  • Citric Acid – Weak acid found in citrus fruits; Natural preservative; Adds a sour taste to products

As always, I hope this article has eased some of your fears and well as encouraged you to be more conscious about the foods we eat. Happy snacking!

Leave a Reply