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What is That? Strange-Sounding Ingredients in Your Food

By Sara Butler

When you look at the ingredients list on the foods you buy (which you should be doing!) you probably notice some ingredients that sound like something harvested from an alien planet rather than something that should be in your food. Food is a science, so there are terms for things added to your food that you certainly aren’t expected to recognize. Remember that knowledge is power, so take some initiative to learn about the things you are putting into your body.

Here are a few of the ingredients common in your food.


This is an ingredient you will find in salad dressings, non-dairy milk and ice cream. It is used as a natural thickening agent and it is made out of seaweed. It’s a little bit controversial because some scientists think it turns into an inflammatory agent once you eat it and it mixes with your stomach acid though others have found no reason to be alarmed by it. The Federal Drug Administration considers it safe, so you’ll have to make that judgment call for yourself.


This is found in cereal bars, yogurt, and pasta; just don’t confuse it with insulin! Inulin is a kind of fiber found in plants and is used to add fiber to highly processed foods, as well as creaminess to reduced fat foods.

It is considered to be prebiotic, so it’s good for the bacteria that lives in your gut, but eating too much of it can create some distressing symptoms in your digestive system.


This is a popular product used in reduced-fat products, salad dressings, and ice cream to help improve its texture. It’s made from corn, rice or potato starch and when your body breaks it down it creates a sugar, just like any other starch that you eat.

Xanthan Gum

Xanthan gum is found in toothpaste, ice cream, and salad dressings and is used to thicken foods it is added to. It also stabilizes food so that it retains its creaminess while being stored on the shelf at the store.

It is added in very small amounts so it doesn’t really impact the nutrition of the food it is in, it’s simply used to make food more palatable to you. And yes, I know that toothpaste isn't a food.

Artificial Flavors

It can be a little disturbing when something is referred to as an artificial flavor on your food packaging, but it is actually a very common ingredient in cookies, drinks, yogurt, crackers, candy, salad dressing and ice cream. Artificial flavors are flavors that have been created in a lab and don’t occur naturally. It is considered safe by the FDA, though – so you need to decide if it’s right for you!

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