COL It's on the label, but what are we really eating?

How many times have you looked at a food label and thought to yourself, "What am I really eating?" Well, I looked into a few of those bizarre multisyllabic substances, and here is what I found.

Carrageenan is a seaweed extract derived from Irish moss.

Where do you find it? Ben &; Jerry's Cherry Garcia Ice Cream; Coffee-Mate Fat-Free French Vanilla Creamer; Morningstar Farms Better'n Burgers; Progresso Chicken Noodle Soup. Primarily used as an emulsifier, stabilizer and thickener, this gum is popular as a fat replacement in low-fat foods because it provides a "fat feel" to the food.

Is it safe? It is being studied because it has been shown to cause cancer and ulcerative colitis in lab animals, but the FDA regards it as 100 percent safe in the allowable amounts. According to Barry Swanson, professor of food science at Washington State University, it's not broken down in the stomach and is a pretty safe additive. The Center for Science in the Public Interest agrees, rating it "safe."

Xanthan gum is a naturally occurring carbohydrate made by fermenting corn sugar with a microbe called Xanthomonas campestris.


Guar gum is made from the seeds of the guar plant cultivated in India.

Where do you find them? Edy's Whole Fruit Bars; Ben &; Jerry's Fudge Central Ice Cream; Wish-Bone Deluxe French Dressing; Thomas' Cinnamon Raisin English Muffins; Quaker Regular Instant Oatmeal; Light n' Lively Fat Free Cottage Cheese.

They act as thickening and emulsifying agents; they prevent sugar crystals from forming in candy; they form the gel-like consistency in pudding; and they keep oil and water mixed together in salad dressings.

In fact, guar gum has five to eight times the thickening power of cornstarch and is used not only to thicken our food and livestock feed, but also in paper manufacturing, textiles, printing, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals, explains Ruth Winter, author of "A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives."

Are they safe? Yes, relatively, because they are not digestible and are, therefore, not absorbed by the body. But the FDA banned guar gum from use in drugs and weight-loss products in 1997 because it swells when wet, adds Winter.

In fact, in large doses they have been shown to cause intestinal distress in animals.

Potassium sorbate is a potassium salt version of sorbic acid, a polyunsaturated fat.

Where do you find it? Smucker's Low Sugar Red Raspberry Preserves; Land O'Lakes Light Whipped Butter; SnackWell's Devil's Food Cookies.


It is used as a preservative, particularly to inhibit mold growth in bakery products (cakes, cheesecakes, and pie fillings), cheese, fruit preserves and some margarines. It's also found in beverages, chocolate, soda fountain syrups and salads (potato, macaroni, coleslaw, gelatin).

Is it safe? Although somewhat controversial (certain Web sites and splinter groups feel it's unsafe), it is safe when eaten in allowable doses, according to Swanson.

Phosphoric acid is a naturally occurring organic acid found in all plants and animals.

Where do you find it? Coke, Pepsi and other carbonated beverages.

It is primarily used as flavoring to impart a tart, acidic taste to soda. In potato products and cheeses, it adds desirable flavor and stabilizes color.

Is it safe? In pure form, it is a strong acid, but it's diluted for use in food.

"Bleach is a strong solution also, but when it's put in small concentrations in our drinking water -- it's safe and effective," says Swanson. CSPI gives it a safe rating.

Charles Stuart Platkin is a syndicated health, nutrition and fitness columnist and founder of iWellness Solutions. He can be reached at

What To Read Next
Get Local