Panera, among other food companies, has announced a commitment to removing certain ingredients from their products. While many in the food science industry have mixed feelings about this decision, this is an opportunity to help consumers understand what is in their food (and why).
At the time of this post, there are numerous sites dedicated to presenting information on food ingredients, but some of those sites seem more about fear than food science. There have been several insightful articles on Panera’s initiative [See Related Reading, below, for my favorites], but to date, no site has accumulated the credible information and assembled it to directly correspond to the ingredients on the Panera No No List. Until now.
For each ingredient on Panera’s list, I’ve* collected the pertinent information about why that ingredient is used in food in the first place. For each ingredient, you’ll find a brief explanation of its purpose, safety concerns if any, and whether a natural counterpart can perform as well or better.
*This list has been a collaborative effort, and I thank all who have helped me compile this information. See “FOR MORE INFO” for resources and contact me on Twitter @GreenEyedGuide for the opportunity to join them in completing and improving this project.
Part II of V – Sugars and Alternative Sweeteners
[The official Panera No No List is available here; replicated below.] Ingredients discussed in this post are red.
Acesulfame K, Acesulfame potassium, or “Ace-K”
- PURPOSE: Low-calorie sweetener 200 times sweeter than sugar, often used in combination with other low-calorie sweeteners to enhance taste of food products like baked goods, frozen desserts, beverages and dessert mixes
- SAFETY NOTES: Has been used around the world for 15 years; used in the US since 1988
- FOR MORE INFO: IFIC Food Insight’s “Everything You Need to Know About Ace-K“
- PURPOSE: Low-calories sweetener made from two amino acids, phenylalanine and aspartic acid; 200 times sweeter than sugar, often used in confections, desserts, canned fruits and dressings
- SAFETY NOTES: The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) recently published an opinion on aspartame safety (spoiler: deemed safe),
- FOR MORE INFO: Compound Interest has published a thoroughly informative infographic, which I cannot praise strongly enough, reviewing the chemistry and safety of Aspartame.
High Fructose Corn Syrup (HFCS)
- PURPOSE: Invented in 1960, fructose syrups start out as plain corn or potato syrup and go through an enzymatic conversion that converts some of the glucose sugars into fructose sugars (glucose is the simplest sugar; fructose is glucose, slightly rearranged in the way you might rearrange a Mr Potato Head). Since fructose is slightly sweeter than glucose (thanks the rearrangement, which is more easily detected by sweetness receptors), less total syrup is needed to get the same sweetness sensation. ***NOTE: Sucrose (table sugar) is 50/50 glucose and fructose; HFCS has the same approximate sweetness to sugar and are usually around 55/45 glucose and fructose (yep, there’s more glucose than fructose in HFCS)
- SAFETY NOTES: Studies comparing high fructose corn syrup and sucrose consumption in men and women have found no significant differences in outcome measures of metabolism (Am J Clin Nutr)
- FOR MORE INFO: One of the most entertaining scientific papers I’ve ever read is by John White; FREE ACCESS in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition
- PURPOSE: Hydrogenated starches are common sugar alcohols. “Sugar alcohols are neither sugars nor alcohols. They are carbohydrates with a chemical structure that partially resembles sugar and partially resembles alcohol, but they don’t contain ethanol as alcoholic beverages do.” – FROM IFIC Food Insight Sugar Alcohols Fact Sheet
- BENEFIT OVER NATURAL COUNTER-PART: Unlike high-intensity sweeteners like Stevia or Aspartame, sugar alcohols can provide similar bulk/mouth-feel as regular sugar.
- SAFETY NOTES: The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) recommends to cut back on hydrogenated starches because they aren’t completely absorbed (which is why they’re less calories than sugar), but, “As with most sugar alcohols, eating significant amounts of HSH may cause intestinal gas and diarrhea.”
- FOR MORE INFO: See this review of polyols from the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT)
- PURPOSE: Neotame is Aspartame that’s been modified to be 7,000 – 8,000 times (!!!) as sweet as sugar
- SAFETY NOTES: CSPI put Aspartame in the “Avoid” category, but put Neotame in the “Safe” category. Neotame was approved by the U.S. FDA in 2002 and the European Union in 2010, but is still rarely used.
- FOR MORE INFO: IFIC Food Insight’s “Facts About Low-Calorie Sweeteners”
- PURPOSE: The first alternative sweetener, 300 times as sweet as sugar
- SAFETY NOTES: (when rats get fed WAY too many cans of soda, it’s a fascinating turn of events) CSPI put Saccharin in the “Avoid” category, and notes:
- FOP MORE INFO: CSPI on Sacchrin
- PURPOSE: Sucralose is a sugar molecule that’s been slightly tweaked so our bodies don’t absorb as many calories from it; it’s 600x sweet as sugar, and unlike most of the alternative sweeteners above, Sucralose (“Splenda”) can be used in baking without it breaking down; It’s used in baked goods, desserts, dairy products, canned fruits, syrups and condiments – FROM IFIC Food Insight “Everything You Need to Know About Sucralose“
- SAFETY NOTES: Approved by FDA in 1998, and it’s considered safe by government/regulatory agencies worldwide; CSPI puts this in the “Caution” category
- FOR MORE INFO: IFIC Food Insight “Everything You Need to Know About Sucralose“
Companies should not be criticized for making clean-label commitments like this. However, consumers would benefit much more from moves like this if the companies are more transparent about WHY each ingredient is coming out, and what that ingredient was doing in the food in the first place.
John Coupland, a professor of food science at Penn State University, talks with Here & Now’s Meghna Chakrabarti about what these additives are, and why more and more companies have been making moves to eliminate them in foods.
Science Meets Food – Renouncing Pronounce-ability
It’s important to ask questions about your food, but that doesn’t mean you should be afraid of it.