Don’t let the mad-scientists names frighten you. These harmless mystery items may really be good for you
The simplest rule of thumb when shopping for healthy food is to not buy anything containing ingredients you can't pronounce or that your grandmother wouldn't recognize. Easy. That is, until you realize there are plenty of good-for-you packaged items—such as Greek yogurt, oatmeal, and bottled green tea—boasting a few mystifying words that would definitely leave Grandma scratching her head.
No reason to stop buying those healthy foods—many ingredients that sound like a chemistry project are completely natural and not harmful, says Amie Valpone, a holistic health coach, culinary nutritionist, and founder of The Healthy Apple. If you see these eight common ingredients on a label, it's perfectly fine to eat or drink up.
File under weird but true: Cellulose is a carbohydrate that comes from plants—most often, wood pulp. [Tweet this fact!] "Composed of simply carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen, it helps give all plant cells structure and stability," Valpone says. It also stabilizes and thickens foods such as beer and ice cream, and is actually a form of insoluble dietary fiber, which can help regulate digestion.
This natural preservative and flavoring agent made from fermented corn, beet, or cane sugar adds the right amount of tanginess to frozen desserts and some fruit drinks. It's essential for kickstarting the fermentation process in probiotic-rich foods such as cheese, buttermilk, pickles, and sauerkraut too, although you won't typically see it on those labels.
The satisfying chewy texture of granola, cereal, and nutrition bars is often credit to maltodextrin, a type of starch derived from corn, potatoes, or rice. If you avoid wheat, be mindful that outside of the U.S., this filler is occasionally made from the grain.
Harsh as it sounds, this term is just another name for vitamin C. It can be extracted from plants or made by fermenting sugars to add extra vitamins to fruit drinks and cereals, but it's not only used to fortify: It also help foods maintain their color, flavor, and texture—kind of like when you add lime juice to guacamole to keep it from turning brown and mushy.
A sugar-like substance, xanthan gum is made by feeding corn or wheat starch to bacteria. (Since starches don't contain protein, xanthan gum that's produced with wheat starch does not contain the protein wheat gluten.) It thickens salad dressings, sauces, and some beverages, and is a key component in giving most gluten-free breads and baked goods a body and texture that's similar to their wheat-based counterparts.
Derived from the chicory root plant, this natural soluble fiber shows up in margarines, baked goods, frozen desserts, salad dressings, and low-fat foods where it creates a creamy mouthfeel with benefits. "It's a desirable additive because it can increase calcium absorption and foster healthy flora in the gut," Valpone says. [Tweet this fact!] You'll also find it under the aliases fructooligosaccharide and chicory root fiber.
Like ascorbic acid, tocopherols are a pseudonym for a vitamin—in this case, E. Typically the synthetic form of tocopherols is used in packaged foods as a preservative to prevent spoilage in cereal, bottled beverages, and other foods and drinks.
This fatty substance pops up in everything from chocolate to buttery spreads. "Lecithin is a jack of all trades," Valpone says. "It's used as an emulsifier to keep ingredients from separating, as a lubricant, and coats, preserves, and thickens." Derived from eggs or soybeans, lecithin is a source of choline, a nutrient that's essential for cell and nerve health, and that helps your liver process fat and cholesterol.