Being able to scrutinize the nutritional value of food when we go shopping or go out to eat has become much easier in recent years. But while it’s easy to comparison-shop in terms of calories, carbohydrates, fats and protein, deciphering the names and uses of some additives can still seem like cramming for a chemistry exam.
Food additives to enhance flavor have been in common use by cultures around the globe for centuries. In modern times, they are used for everything from enhancing protein content, to thickening, sweetening and/or preserving all manner of foods and beverages. More recently, government regulations that require these substances to be stated on an ingredient list, have added their own “x” factor to many foods and other products we otherwise might not have thought twice about using.
Food Flavoring Ingredients
Ingredients that add flavor or intensify a food’s natural flavors are very common and most are generally recognized as safe for most people to consume. Some of the most common examples include Monosodium Glutamate (MSG), autolyzed yeast extracts and maltodextrin. For people with allergies to yeast, those who have trouble metabolizing MSG, or those who must monitor their blood sugar level, scrutinizing food, beverage and even cosmetic labels takes on extra importance.
Originally isolated from seaweed, MSG is probably best known for its use in Chinese restaurant food, but it has found its way into a variety of other foods products since its discovery in the early 20th century. While MSG is generally regarded as safe to consume, some people are not able to metabolize it well. The resultant buildup of MSG in the bloodstream is often referred to in popular culture as ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’. Some of its symptoms include a burning or tingling sensation on the face and chest, sweating, nausea, abdominal cramping, dizziness and a headache. For those who recognize that eating foods with MSG results in these symptoms, avoidance is typically recommended.
Autolyzed Yeast Extracts
Although the term might conjure up images of heavy machinery, autolyzed yeast extracts are natural flavor-enhancing ingredients. The autolyzation process involves the partial breakdown of yeast cells by their own enzymes in order to yield a partially non-soluble flavor enhancer. Autolyzed yeast extracts are often used to impart a roasted, toasted or grilled taste to meats and baked foods. Although there are no known side effects to consuming autolyzed yeast extracts, a person who is allergic to yeast may wish to limit or avoid consumption of foods that contain them.
Maltodextrin is a flavoring agent made from grain starch by means of a process known as partial hydrolysis. This process breaks the starch into smaller polymers. Maltodextrin is a bit of a Swiss Army knife of additives, as it is used in wide range of products to increase the shelf life of sweets, retard or prevent granulation, lend a powdery appearance to foods, serve as a ‘filler’ ingredient, prevent melting, mitigate sweetness, alter the flavor of a food and in beverages to enhance the natural smell and reduce nutrient loss. It is also used in cosmetics to enhance skin luster and elasticity. As its name might suggest, maltodextrin rates quite high on the glycemic index, so diabetics and hypoglycemics should keep track of how much they consume.
Protein Bioavailability Enhancers
Although they are not strictly used to enhance flavor, substances known as Hydrolyzed Vegetable Protein (HVP) or Hydrolyzed Plant Protein (HPP) are sometimes added to foods to make protein more bioavailable. In general, bioavailability refers to the amount of a nutrient that is absorbed from the diet and is usable for bodily functions. Hydrolyzed protein can often be found in protein supplements, as emulation stabilizers, and as foaming aids in a number of personal care products. Similar to partial hydrolysis, the hydrolyzation process breaks down proteins into individual amino acids, which are then quickly absorbed by the body upon ingestion (a highly desirable feature for athletes). This convenience can come at a cost, however, for those who are sensitive to MSG.
That’s because during the digestive process, the chemical reaction that occurs in the body when breaking down HPP and HVP can result in the formulation of glutamate (sound familiar?). It is possible for this glutamate product to join with free sodium to form–you guessed it–MSG. So, people sensitive to MSG may then experience symptoms with ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’; no Chinese restaurant and no originally added MSG need be involved! Unfortunately for those sensitive to MSG, foods with HVP and HPP do not need to list MSG as an ingredient since the MSG is formed in their own internal chemical process once the food is ingested. So, to be on the safe side, people sensitive to MSG should also be watchful for products that HVP or HPP.