When reading food labels, it can be tempting to assume that any words in the ingredients list that have long, unpronounceable, or unfamiliar names must be bad for us (and definitely aren’t Paleo). But, this isn’t always the case! While some scary-sounding ingredients are worth watching out for (such as hidden sources of gluten, soy, corn and sugar), others are completely benign, and there’s no reason to go out of our way to avoid them. Here’s a run-down of some of the most common ingredients that sound harmful but aren’t!
Sometimes, vitamins added to food are spelled under their less familiar chemical names and might not be recognizable at first glance. Some are used to enhance a food’s nutritional value, but others (like ascorbic acid/vitamin C or mixed tocopherols/vitamin E) are used to prevent oxidation and extend the shelflife of foods. If these ingredients appear on a food list, they’re micronutrients, not toxic chemicals!
- Thiamin (vitamin B1)
- Riboflavin (vitamin B2)
- Niacin or nicotinic acid (vitamin B3)
- Pantothenic acid or calcium pantothenate (vitamin B5)
- Pyridoxal, pyridoxine, pyridoxamine (vitamin B6)
- Cobalamin or cyanocobalamin (vitamin B12)
- Ascorbic acid (vitamin C)*
- Ascorbyl palmitate (a fat-soluble form of vitamin C)
- Calciferol (vitamin D)
- Alpha-tocopherol or mixed tocopherols (vitamin E)*
- Folic acid, folate, folacin (vitamin B9)
- Phylloquinone or menadione (vitamin K)
*Note that some vitamins are derived from non-Paleo foods. For example vitamin C is typically derived from corn and vitamin E is typically derived from soy. When added to foods, there is no requirement to have “may contain” on the label for corn or soy since these vitamins are purified. However, their presence may still be a problem for those with severe allergy to corn or soy and a history of anaphylactic responses. Also note that synthetic forms of vitamins aren’t always as bioavailable as the forms found in whole foods, so while we don’t necessarily need to be worried about these vitamins being added to foods, we can’t depend on them for nutrient sufficiency.
Enzymes are sometimes added to foods like cheese, meat tenderizers, and various dairy products (as well as some supplements). The following ingredients are perfectly fine:
- Bromelain (an enzyme derived from pineapple)
- Papain (an enzyme derived from papaya)
- Ficin (an enzyme derived from figs)
- Rennet (commonly used in cheese)
In fact, bromelain may have some great health-promoting properties! (See Nutritional Support for Injury and Wound Healing)
Certain foods (like yogurt, kefir, kombucha, kvass, and fermented veggies) contain health-promoting bacteria and yeasts that helped ferment the food. In some cases, these probiotics are listed on the ingredients list. Rest assured, they’re beneficial (see The Health Benefits of Fermented Foods and The Benefits of Probiotics)!
- Lactobacillus species (including acidophilus, L. johnsonii, L. casei, L. rhamnosus, L. gasseri, L. reuteri)
- Bifidobacterium species (including Bifidobacterium bifidum, Bifidobacterium longum, Bifidobacterium infantis)
- Saccharomyces boulardii
- Bacillus species
This is just regular table salt! Even though it’s always better to choose unrefined salt and moderate sodium consumption, its presence on a label isn’t reason enough to turn tails (see Is Salt Paleo?).
This is another word for baking soda.
Alginate (or sodium alginate or algin).
This is a harmless seaweed-derived salt found in some Paleo-friendly foods like kelp noodles (see Why Seaweed is Amazing!).
This is an acid that gives vinegar its pungent smell.
Of course, some ingredients really are problematic (see my “Reading Labels” download for a comprehensive list of things that could trigger reactions in people sensitive to gluten, corn, soy, and dairy, and my “Yes-No-Maybe So” download for additional ingredients that are generally harmful). But, there’s no use in eliminating foods just because we don’t understand what some of the ingredients mean, unless there’s actual evidence of harm!