Low fat? That has to be healthy right?
Before putting that food into your basket snatch a glance at the ingredient list. Most often you’ll be met with a list of items that seems more akin to a laboratory than a kitchen. So what are things like xanthum gum or methylcellulose?
What are their functions and what are they made from?
The first question is relatively simple to answer. Man-made ingredients such as xanthum gum are often added to improve the texture of a food. As anyone who enjoys a regular steak can tell you, fats carry flavour. Remove the fats and you remove the…well you get the idea. We cannot underestimate the importance of fat and animal fat substitutes for making meals tasty. It doesn’t hurt either that at the last estimate, the industry for animal and vegetable fat substitutes is worth about $6billion dollars in the US alone but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence.
So what’s are these substitutes made from? Thankfully in 2011 the Chemical & Engineering News put together a helpful list:
- Alginates: Commonly found in cream, fruit fillings, ice cream, low-fat spreads, salad dressings and processed meats. This ingredient is derived from brown seaweeds.
- Carrageenans: Found in ice cream, coffee whiteners, cottage cheese and low fat salad dressings. Has also been known to turn up in chocolate milk. This is a carbohydrate extracted from red seaweeds.
- Microcrystalline cellulose: This gives that creamy filling to sauces, batters fillings etc. and comes from tree pulp. It also prevents fried foods from becoming soggy and helps stabilize whipped toppings and chocolate drinks.
- Methylcellulose: Like icrocrystalline cellulose comes from tree pulp. It has gelling properties that reduce oil uptake in fried foods and improve the texture of meat alternatives. It can also be used to improve the “mouth feel” of sugar-free beverages and reduce milk fat in whipped toppings and desserts. A new use is to help trap air in gluten-free foods.
- Cellulose gum: This ingredient, commonly found in low-fat sauces, is made from tree pulp and cotton fibers. It helps retain moisture in frozen dough, tortillas, and cakes and reduces fat uptake in doughnuts. It stabilizes proteins in protein drinks and replaces texture lost when reducing sugar in beverages. It adds viscosity, flow, and glossy appearance to low-fat sauces.
- Gelatin is derived from the collagen in pig and cattle skins and bones. It is used as a gelling agent, stabilizer, thickener, and texturizer in desserts, yogurt, low-fat foods, etc. and is perhaps the closest thing to a natural food source you’ll find in this list.
- Guar gum: This polysaccharide, comes from the seeds of the guar gum bush, Cyamopsis tetragonolobus, which is an annual leguminous plant that originated in India. As a thickener, it is eight times more powerful than cornstarch. It controls moisture and adds texture to baked goods. It also controls viscosity in dairy drinks, salad dressings, and condiments.
- Pectin: This stabilizer is extracted from the peels of citrus fruits and from sugar beets. It is used for gelling, thickening, and stabilizing food. It is used in jams, jellies, fillings, and confectioneries. It can also be used to thicken and stabilize fruit- and milk-based beverages.
- Starch: Starch is generally derived from corn, potatoes, or tapioca. Food makers use both native and modified versions and it can be hydrolyzed into dextrins such as maltodextrin. Starches are used as thickeners, stabilizers, and fat substitutes in puddings, sauces, and salad dressings. They are often added to grain-based foods such as breads, cereals, tortillas, and pasta.
- Xanthan gum: Perhaps the most common of all substitutes. It is made by industrial fermentation of sugar by the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. Used in small amounts, it adds viscosity and cling to salad dressings and sauces. It is also used in egg substitutes and in gluten-free baking.
So there you have it, a clear explanation of where these ingredients come from. Whether or not they’ll be a useful addition to your diet is up to you. Personally I’m happier sticking to foods with one or two ingredients!