What's in your food? Get the skinny on 4 misunderstood ingredients

By Bryan Borzykowski April 04, 2016

Have you ever read the ingredients on a food label and thought they sounded like a science experiment rather than something you should eat? You’re not alone. The average consumer has no idea what terms like lecithin, erythritol and even gluten really mean. In a lot of cases, the ingredient names sound frightening, but in reality they’re anything but.

Many ingredients are misunderstood, says Adam Waehner, an assistant vice president at Cargill. People may avoid them because their names sound too scientific, even if they don’t understand what’s inside. “It’s challenging, especially when an ingredient sounds like a chemical—it sounds like it must be bad, but it’s really not,” Waehner said.

As a first step, it’s important to remember that every item listed on a label has to be studied and approved for use in food through a process defined by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Waehner explained.

Here’s what else you need to know about four commonly misunderstood ingredients.

1. Lecithin: A naturally occurring emulsifier

Despite its odd-sounding name, lecithin occurs naturally in many foods, Waehner said. It’s an emulsifier, which allows ingredients like oil and water — which usually separate when put together — to combine into a homogeneous substance. This already occurs in nature: Take a glass of milk, for example — it may seem like one white liquid, but it’s really a mixture of fat and water.

“As we learned in grade school, oil and water don’t mix,” said Waehner. “But in this case, they do.” Naturally occurring lecithin mixes the fat and water into a “nice, smooth experience.”

Lecithin is found in foods such as egg yolks, dairy products, soybeans and sunflower seeds. But it can also be produced from vegetable oils. When oil is heated and mixed with water, the process creates lecithin, which is then added to things like chocolate and baked goods to help all the ingredients mix together. The ingredient might not be commonly found in your pantry, but there’s nothing unnatural or toxic about it.

2.  Erythritol: A sweet alternative to sugar

Erythritol has another chemical-sounding name that might give some people pause. But this low-calorie substance can be a more healthful alternative to sugar.

It’s a member of the polyols family, a collection of substances commonly used as sweeteners. In general, polyols contain fewer calories than sugar and are often used as a sugar substitute in candies, chewing gum and other treats.

Although erythritol is part of the polyol family, it’s produced in a different way from other members. It’s created through a fermentation process with yeast — similar to how beer is made. Unlike some other polyols, it has nearly no calories, yet it provides about 70 percent of the sweetness of sugar. One criticism of other polyols is that they can cause gastrointestinal issues — erythritol does not have that problem, said Waehner. It may be more expensive to use than other polyols, but its benefits often outweigh the costs.

3. Fully hydrogenated oils: No trans fats here

Some hydrogenated oils have gotten a bad rap, and for good reason: Partially hydrogenated oils (PHO) are a source of trans fats, which have been found to increase the risk of heart disease. What most people don’t realize, however, is that not all hydrogenated oils are the same.

Fully hydrogenated oils (FHO) — often used in spreads such as margarine and shelf-stable baked goods such as crackers and cookies — don’t contain any trans fats, Waehner said. FHO is a saturated fat, rather than an unsaturated trans fatty acid (the source of trans fats).

Creating FHO is similar to PHO — hydrogen is added to liquid vegetable oils to make them more solid. However, with PHOs, those oils become semi-solid, and with FHO they’re completely solid. Trans fats are totally eliminated in that solid state.

4. Gluten: It’s not what you think

Many consumers avoid gluten. Although some are genuinely allergic to it — mainly people who have celiac disease — others just believe it is bad for you or causes weight gain.

Gluten is a naturally occurring protein, found in wheat, barley, rye and some other grains. It’s rarely added to food. It helps dough rise and become elastic, and it allows breads and other products to keep their shape after baking.

“It has these vital properties that are really beneficial in food,” said Waehner. “It holds the structure together.”

Interestingly, many labels do not list gluten because it’s just part of the makeup of wheat. At the same time, many products are now labeled “gluten-free.” Why? Because they’ve been produced that way to meet the no-gluten demand. Often, “gluten-free” products, such as potato chips, wouldn’t contain wheat, barley or rye in the first place, Waehner said.

By eliminating gluten from your diet, you’re eliminating carb-filled foods, which can result in weight loss. However, it’s not the reduction in gluten that triggers the weight loss, but ingesting fewer carbs, in part because they can cause people to retain more water, said Waehner.

Of course, people can eat what they want, but gluten is not the food villain many people make it out to be. “No one is adding something surreptitiously to all these foods,” he said.

Bryan Borzykowski’s writing focuses on investing, personal finance, small business and technology. His work has appeared in The New York Times, CNBC, CNNMoney and BBC Capital, among other publications. He’s also written three personal finance books. Follow Bryan on Twitter: @bborzyko.

This article first appeared on CargillVoice on Forbes.