What Common Food Additives Look Like

Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts
Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts / Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts

Among healthy food evangelists, there’s a simple rule: don’t eat ingredients you can’t pronounce. It’s a good way to avoid processed foods, but in many cases, it’s probably overkill. Food additives are everywhere, and not everything with a chemical-sounding name is going to poison you. Vitamins and minerals are added to food to make up for common nutritional deficiencies. Preservatives keep food from rotting immediately.

Photographer Dwight Eschliman and science writer Steve Ettlinger explore the unfamiliar world of everyday food additives in their new book Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products (coming out in September 2015). Eschliman’s images put common ingredients like corn syrup, chlorophyll (seen above), MSG, caramel color, and folic acid in the spotlight for once, instead of relegating them to a behind-the-scenes role. 

Ettlinger explains in the introduction:

Since World War II, the availability and use of food additives have evolved considerably, especially recently. The war created demand for chemical research; the postwar economy created demand for convenience foods. These days, consumer demands tend to focus on carefully created food products that deliver certain health benefits—so-called functional foods such as high-fiber, low-fat, and no-sugar products. The result is food products filled with more and more additives and much longer and more complex ingredient lists. It can get quite confusing.

Here’s what some of those mystery ingredients look like in real life:

Lycopene is found in pink grapefruit, watermelon, and asparagus, but in the U.S., the food coloring can only be extracted from tomatoes.

Monoglycerides and diglycerides are special kinds of fat that tie fat and water molecules together, making them vital to baking. They stabilize batter to maintain texture in baked goods. They also keep artificial coffee creamer from clumping, and make ice cream super smooth. 

Polyglycerol polyricinoleate, or PGPR, is comprised of fatty acids from castor oil, and it’s essential to chocolate makers. They use it to thin the proportion of expensive cocoa butter in chocolate bars, and to control the viscosity of chocolate coatings.

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is widely associated with Chinese food. It’s the ingredient responsible for umami taste, and it intensifies other flavors. While MSG gets a bad rap, it’s not bad for you, though some people are more sensitive to it. It can also be found in Parmesan cheese. 

Red 40 and Yellow 5 are both made from gray powders, which are put through a hot chemical reaction and come out brightly colored. Food coloring dates back to 5000 BCE.

Shellac comes from the resin secreted by lac beetles, an Asian insect. The waterproof resin is a great sealant, and it’s used for sealing wax, varnish, nail polish, and printing ink. It’s also used as a seal on fruits and vegetables, gum, pills, and coffee beans.

More food additives are made from corn than any other raw material except petroleum, according to Ettlinger. This includes corn flour, cornstarch, maltodextrin, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and more.  It can be made into a thickener, a sweetener, a moisture-control agent, and a substitute for the mouthfeel of fat and eggs in desserts, among other things.

Annatto provides the orange coloring of cheddar cheese, which is naturally white or at best, a little yellow. Its peppery flavor makes it popular in Latin American and Filipino cuisine. It also provides color for margarine and snack foods.

Azodicarbonamide, or ADA, is an oxidizing agent that makes flour ferment faster. It strengthens and conditions dough for baked goods and breads, but once it comes into contact with moisture in the bread, it turns into a water-soluble compound called biurea, which passes easily through the body. ADA is rather infamous as the chemical that recently caused public outcry over Subway sandwich bread. It’s also found in rubber (and thus, yoga mats), however, studies have found that it’s safe to consume—the only danger from ADA is to the workers who make it, who can suffer after inhaling it in large quantities (like many other dusts).

Happy eating!

[h/t: Wired]

All images by Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts