nutrition

Antifreeze in your salad dressing? 7 ingredients that sound toxic but are safe

June 17, 2014 at 10:03 AM ET

Horizontal photo of female hand holding dressing in small glass bowl with salad and plate in background
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Some salad dressings contain trace amounts of propylene glycol, a lubricating agent.

When you read the ingredient label of many packaged foods, you’ll often see lots of ingredients that you can’t pronounce. Do they pose any danger to your health?

While some of these ingredients are found in non-food items (like shampoos and cosmetics), the comparison ends there. Despite scare-mongering headlines like "yoga mat material in your sandwich!" ingredients in ANY food are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration for both purity and amount included. Only purified food-grade quality ingredients are approved for use in edibles, and the amounts are tiny, when compared to non-food products. It’s the biological properties of the ingredient— like thickening, emulsifying, or absorbing moisture — that are similar.  

So, the short answer is —no, the following seven ingredients won't harm you in the trace amounts found in foods. 

Watch video: Which mysterious ingredients are safe to eat?

However, if you want to avoid them, all packaged foods have ingredients listed on the label, so these are easily identified by name. Be a smart shopper, read the labels.

Xanthan Gum

A type of fermentation product of sugar, xanthan gum is used as a thickener, providing texture, in a variety of foods. Two plant-based products with similar products are guar gum and locust bean gum.

Found in some: baked items, pasta, gluten-free foods, salad dressings, cookies, pudding, fat-free cocoa mix, breads and other baked goods

Video: From xanthan gum to soy lecithin, NBC News Health and Diet Editor Madelyn Fernstrom explains 7 mysterious ingredients that are commonly found in most of our foods.

Carrageenan

An extract of red seaweed used as a thickener, carrageenan is often found in low and non-fat dairy products. It can be found in processed meats, to maintain moisture.

Found in some: fat-free ice cream, fat-free cottage cheese, fruit chewies, salad dressings, canned soups, barbeque sauce

Soy Lecithin

Soy lecithin is a popular emulsifier, often used in products containing both oil and water to keep them mixed.

Found in some: chocolate, margarine, protein bars, non-stick cooking spray, cake mix, frosted toaster pastries

Gelatin/Agar

A protein derived from beef or pigs (gelatin) or from red algae (agar), these are used as a thickener. When combined with hot water, then cooled, both agar and gelatin solidify. For vegetarian or Kosher consumers, the plant based agar is the ingredient to look for.

Found in some: frosting, marshmallows, cheesecake, gummy bears

Silicon Dioxide

An ingredient that is also found in nature (including fruits, nuts and seeds), when used in packaged foods, silicon dioxide is used to absorb moisture. While commonly known as “sand”, the edible version is highly purified, not the beach variety.

Found in some: powdered coffee creamers, dry soup mix, powdered spices, dry gravy mix

Cellulose

Chocolate milk
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Cellulose, found on the outside of kernels of corn, is used as a bulking agent in some foods like chocolate milk.

As a non-digestible starch, cellulose passes through the digestive tract in its original form. Found in the outside kernels of corn, cellulose is used in packaged foods as a bulking agent, and also helps prevent stickiness in foods like strands of shredded cheese.

Found in some:ice creams, shredded cheeses, reduced fat chocolate milk, wheat crackers, reduced calorie bread

Propylene Glycol

As a lubricating agent propylene glycol is used in trace amounts to keep both liquid and solid ingredients moist and in solution. 

A form of propylene glycol is used in antifreeze and in personal care products like shampoos and conditioners. But the food grade ingredient is safe and regulated for human consumption.

Found in some: salad dressings, fat-free ice cream, soda, beer, dessert topping mix

Sometimes a “chemical” sounding name can be one of nature’s favorites. What about sodium chloride? It’s table salt!

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