Did you know that chemists are employed by major food producers to ensure that what we eat is safe and nutritious? Expert Dr John Emsley deconstructs everyday household food products and reveals what they really contain…






When milk is heated to 72 degrees for 20 seconds, it kills most of the microorganisms which are present, such as bacteria and yeasts, and which eventually make it turn sour. Pasteurised milk, as it is called, will then remain drinkable for several days, although it now tastes a little different. Another way of extending the life of milk is to heat it to 135 degrees for two seconds, and this treatment kills all the microbes. This is UHT (ultra-high temperature processed) milk and it will remain fit to drink for several months and without needing to be refrigerated.





This generally doesn’t apply to high quality ice creams, however most cheap varieties contain neither chocolate or cream! Instead for the ice cream part it is reconstituted skimmed milk, partially reconstituted whey protein concentrate, glucose syrup, vegetable oil, emulsifiers (mono-and di-glycerides of fatty acids) and stabilisers (locust bean gum, guar gum). The chocolate aspect is often chocolate flavour and colouring.

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This consists of glucose syrup, hydrogenated vegetable fat, sodium caseinate (aka milk protein), dipotassium phosphate, silicon dioxide and sodium citrate. Dipotassium phosphate and silicon dioxide prevent the powder from becoming lumpy in the jar, and sodium citrate is there as an acidity regulator. Also included are mono- and di-glyceride oils, which act as emulsifiers and thereby ensure the creamer dissolves evenly. The creamy colour comes from a combination of riboflavin, which is orange, and titanium dioxide, which is white. (Riboflavin is vitamin B2.)





These consist of wheat, oats or rice – or a mix of all three – plus the carbohydrate oligofructose, which provides fibre. Unlike most carbohydrates, oligofructose is not broken down by the digestive enzymes, which would release its calories, but it does attract water thereby easing its passage through the gut. Glycerol keeps the bar moist as well as tasting sweet, and glucose glues the ingredients together. Also included are lecithin, which consists of fatty acid attached to phosphate, malic acid to regulate the pH, and tocopherol, which is a powerful antioxidant.

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In these, the cream and sugar, which make ordinary yoghurts higher in calories, have been replaced by ingredients which provide the same taste and mouth feel and yet have fewer calories. The milk used is skimmed milk, and the main carbohydrate is guar gum, which is extracted from the beans of the guar bush. Other carbohydrates act as stabilizers and ensure the ingredients remain homogeneous. Typical ones are cornflour (modified maize starch) and carrageen (which is extracted from seaweed). The acidity regulator is citric acid plus its sodium salt, sodium citrate, and the artificial sweeteners are aspartame and/or acesulfame





These are designed to replenish the body’s supply of the chemicals it loses during strenuous exercise, and they are glucose, sodium and potassium. When athletes consume a sports drink, it boosts their performance more than plain water. A litre of a typical sports drink provides around 60 grams of glucose, a gram of sodium, and a tenth of a gram of potassium (100 milligrams). There may be other things as well, such as glutamine, which is said to reduce fatigue, build muscle, and improve the immune system, and tryptophan, which can boost adrenalin. Of course, if you just want a quick boost, you consume a high-caffeine drink like Red Bull  or Relentless.

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Drinks like Relentless provide 200 calories of energy from sugar, and 160 mg of caffeine, which is four times as much as in a can of Coke. Other ingredients are citric acid, which provides the acid tang, caramel, which provides colour and flavour, and potassium sorbate, which is a preservative. Also present in Relentless are glucuronolactone, which counters fatigue, taurine, which is essential for a healthy heart, inositol, which is needed to break down fats to release energy, and the vitamins B6 and B12, which the body must have if it is to work properly.





This is made from plant oils like sunflower oil or olive oil, by reacting them with hydrogen gas so they become semi solid. If the margarine is of the reduced-calorie kind, then it contains more water; to keep the fat and water mixed, an emulsifier is added, such as modified starch, which is made by treating ordinary starch with an acid. (Alternative emulsifiers are mono- and di-glycerides, or lecithin.) Potassium sorbate is added as a preservative. Margarine also needs to contain the fat-soluble vitamins A and D which we would otherwise get from butter. Beta-carotene is the yellow colouring agent; this is extracted from carrots and oranges.

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The main meat ingredient is either pork or beef, but hot dogs can also include chicken or turkey. It has been rumoured that in Germany, where hot dogs originate, they might have sometimes contained dog meat, but this is quite likely to be a huge myth. The other ingredients are rusk, which is made from stale bread, salt, and seasonings such as garlic and paprika. Hot dogs also contain the preservative sodium nitrite and the antioxidant sodium erythorbate, which is very similar to vitamin C. Traditionally, hot dogs were encased in the small intestine of sheep, but some are now packed in a non-animal cellulose-based membrane, and referred to as ‘skinless’.





This ubiquitous accompaniment to fast and fried foods consists mainly of tomatoes cooked in spirit vinegar. Spirit vinegar is the stronger variety of vinegar, which can have as high a concentration of acetic acid as 15 per cent. This chemical can either be produced by fermentation of sugar, or obtained from the chemical industry. Other ingredients are salt, sugar or glucose syrup to add sweetness, and various spices such as onion powder, allspice, cayenne and pepper, to add flavour.





This is basically a source of monosodium glutamate, aka MSG, and it will enhance the flavour of meat dishes by boosting the fifth flavour that we can distinguish, and which is referred to as meaty or umami. The others are sweet, sour, bitter and salty. Soy sauce has been used in oriental cuisine for centuries. Although MSG is naturally present in our bodies, a person can be intolerant of it if they take in too much at one time, and the effect is known as the Chinese Restaurant Syndrome. Other ingredients in most soy sauce products include sugars glucose and fructose, and the amino acids leucine and lysine. Potassium chloride, lactic acid (aka milk acid), succinic acid, acetic acid and alcohol are also part of its recipe.


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