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October 26, 2015


by Anne Paddock

If food ingredient labels make your eyes glaze over, we hope that this book will open them instead.

Steve Ettlinger and Dwight Eschliman (of Twinkie, Deconstructed and 37 or So Ingredients fame) came together to create a book –Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products – that is both appealing to the eye and the brain. Noting that “almost everyone eats processed foods,” the authors set the reader at ease by pointing out the word “processed” needs to be considered with care because we often forget that processed food also includes the freezing, cooking, baking, drying, and pickling of food – processes that get a bad rep when additives (especially those with complicated hard-to-pronounce names) are added.

Ingredients_Book_CoverMost of us don’t have a clue as to what most of the ingredients are on a food label. Many of the words are long, difficult to pronounce, and generally sound scary leading to what the authors refer to as “chemophobia” – “the idea that everything with a long chemical name is definitely bad for you…” This is simply not true. What is important is to read labels and understand what the ingredients are and why they are used, which is what this book sets out to do with the most common additives used in the food industry.

The book is divided into two parts: 75 Additives and 25 Processed Food Products along with a graphic table that explains the four food additive functions (maintain or improve nutritional quality, aid in processing or preparation, make food more appealing, and preserve product quality and/or freshness). Even if your diet is geared more towards fresh fruits, vegetables, and grains, having an understanding of what the most basic additives – salt, baking soda, caffeine, sugar, gelatin, corn syrup, cornstarch, caffeine, and probiotics) do is beneficial.

In Part 1: 75 Additives, a picture of each additive is shown along with a description (both scientific and layman), where it comes from, how it is harvested or made, and what it is used for. In addition, the author provides a historical background of the additive and how various governments control the use of the additive.  Some of the most interesting details of the book include:

  • Water is also called dihydrogen monoxide.
  • Agar is processed wild red seaweed and is known by many as a vegetarian alternative to gelatin.
  • Cheddar cheese is not naturally orange. Annatto (which comes from an evergreen shrub) gives orange cheddar cheese its color.
  • Anthocyanins are the color pigments in grape skins.
  • The synthetic version of ascorbic acid (vitamin C) is made from a form of corn syrup.
  • Baking soda comes from a sedimentary rock called trona.
  • Almost any food with fat or oil in it will have antioxidant additives in the mix to prevent spoiling.
  • Calcium sulfate – a common food additive that acts as a filler – comes from a rock and is one of the most common minerals in the world.
  • Caramel color is cooked sugar.
  • Carrageenan primarily comes from seaweed farms in the Philippines that grow on lines with lessor amounts from China, Japan, and other Southeast Asian nations. However, you can easily extract carrageenan from red seaweed by boiling it while wrapped in cheesecloth. The carrageenan dissolves in the water and gels as it cools. Carrageenan binds ingredients together and is used as an emulsifier, stabilizer, and thickening agent in ice cream, nut milks, salad dressings, beer, toothpaste and more.
  • Gelatin is made from cow bones, cow hides, pig skins, pig bones, and fish skin.
  • Folic acid – the synthetic form of folate – Vitamin B9 – prevents spina bifida and other birth defects.
  • Shellac – the sealant often found on fresh foods (i.e. apples) keeps moisture out – is made from the lac beetle. It takes more than 100,000 lac bugs to make a pound of shellac.

In fact, there are so many interesting pieces of information in this book, that the above list could be pages long and the reader will never be bored.

In Part 2: 25 Processed Food Products, the authors take some of the most popular processed foods – Campbell’s Soup, Doritos, Hebrew National Beef Franks, Heinz Ketchup, Cool Whip, Kraft Singles, McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets, Wheat Thins, Snickers Bar, and more – and illustrates each ingredient in the product. The difference in what each ingredient looks like and the end product is simply astounding.

Ingredients is an artistic and scientific journey of the most commonly used additives that will forever change the way you read a label.

Food additives come with a lot of baggage.

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