We've all been there, squinting our eyes, trying to read the long ingredient lists on dried foods. Here's the scoop on how to quickly select the right meals for you.
The FDA’s ingredient label requirement allows the consumer to see what’s inside packaged food to avoid allergies, scan for preferred ingredients, and keep companies honest. A great consumer protection plan, but so many ingredients allowed in food today go by names that average people don't recognize, causing confusion between clean and ultra-processed foods.
It would be impossible to memorize every food additive you’ll ever read, but there are still ways to scan an ingredient label and be knowledgeable of the contents. The common gut issues that people experience from freeze dried food are not caused by the freeze drying process, but instead the effects of suboptimal ingredients on its eater's tummy. Additionally, the disappointment of opening a bag to find it full of rice with a couple tiny pieces of chicken is easily avoidable. I’ve outlined a ‘4 Step Field Guide’ for choosing your backcountry meals and created a short list of ingredients to get familiar with to avoid negative eating and digesting experiences in the backcountry.
COMMON INGREDIENTS IN DRIED FOODS
Maltodextrin or Modified Food Starch:An additive commonly used as a filler in food products to increase the volume of a product and in backpacking foods a cheap option to increase the calorie count. As a carb with a high glycemic index it causes very quick spikes in blood sugar. Ever wonder why you don’t feel full after eating a freeze dried meal that boasts 900 calories?
Carrageenan: A hard-to-digest fiber extracted from seaweed used in food as a thickener, but also used to induce inflammation in mice and test anti-inflammatory drugs. It’s no wonder why it can be the culprit of inflammation, indigestion, and unpleasant experiences in the backcountry. Look out for additives with the word “gum”at the end as they can impact you in the same manner.
Sodium Nitrate/Phosphate:Used to retain moisture and fight off bacteria in goods like jerky or other cured meats. The cooking and freeze drying process eliminates the need for these in backpacking food so there’s no real reason to see this ingredient, but you may see it where pre-dried meats have been included in their process. Sodium phosphate is also used as a laxative and in enemas. Do what you want with that information.
Yeast Extract: Used to make food taste more savory than it is. Meat, mushrooms, cheese, and other foods that provide umami (savoriness) taste are expensive, so yeast extract stands in as a more budget friendly solution. There’s nothing innately wrong with consuming this, it’s more a choice between eating real food or imitation flavoring.
Niacin, Thiamine, Riboflavin and Friends: Don’t sweat if you run into an ingredient list with a vitamin or mineral followed by a chemical, for example, “Vitamin B (Riboflavin)” or “Iron (Ferrous Sulfate).” Extremely common in pastas or milk, they’re added to bulk up the essential micronutrient contents that the average person does not get elsewhere in their diet.
Citric Acid: An organic compound found in citrus fruits like lemons, it’s a safe and perfectly digestible way to add sourness or guard against bacterial growth in food products. Other acids such as malic, tartaric, lactic, and folic acids fall into the same safe zone.
Calcium Chloride: Often found in electrolyte drink mixes, it’s a highly digestible form of calcium sometimes used in the medical field as an injection to treat extremely low levels of calcium. With many applications in the food world, I can’t offer every example of why a company may use it, but it is harmless to see on a label.
Tocopherols:“Toe-cough-er-alls” most definitely falls into the category of ingredients most of us can’t pronounce. However, often extracted from plants like rosemary, tocopherols assist in preserving the fresh taste of foods. Essentially a mix of vitamin E’s, these offer a natural way to preserve freshness.