Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts
Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts

What Common Food Additives Look Like

Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts
Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts

Among healthy food evangelists, there’s a simple rule: don’t eat ingredients you can’t pronounce. It’s a good way to avoid processed foods, but in many cases, it’s probably overkill. Food additives are everywhere, and not everything with a chemical-sounding name is going to poison you. Vitamins and minerals are added to food to make up for common nutritional deficiencies. Preservatives keep food from rotting immediately.

Photographer Dwight Eschliman and science writer Steve Ettlinger explore the unfamiliar world of everyday food additives in their new book Ingredients: A Visual Exploration of 75 Additives & 25 Food Products (coming out in September 2015). Eschliman’s images put common ingredients like corn syrup, chlorophyll (seen above), MSG, caramel color, and folic acid in the spotlight for once, instead of relegating them to a behind-the-scenes role. 

Ettlinger explains in the introduction:

Since World War II, the availability and use of food additives have evolved considerably, especially recently. The war created demand for chemical research; the postwar economy created demand for convenience foods. These days, consumer demands tend to focus on carefully created food products that deliver certain health benefits—so-called functional foods such as high-fiber, low-fat, and no-sugar products. The result is food products filled with more and more additives and much longer and more complex ingredient lists. It can get quite confusing.

Here’s what some of those mystery ingredients look like in real life: 

Lycopene is found in pink grapefruit, watermelon, and asparagus, but in the U.S., the food coloring can only be extracted from tomatoes. 

Monoglycerides and diglycerides are special kinds of fat that tie fat and water molecules together, making them vital to baking. They stabilize batter to maintain texture in baked goods. They also keep artificial coffee creamer from clumping, and make ice cream super smooth. 

Polyglycerol polyricinoleate, or PGPR, is comprised of fatty acids from castor oil, and it’s essential to chocolate makers. They use it to thin the proportion of expensive cocoa butter in chocolate bars, and to control the viscosity of chocolate coatings. 

Monosodium glutamate, or MSG, is widely associated with Chinese food. It’s the ingredient responsible for umami taste, and it intensifies other flavors. While MSG gets a bad rap, it’s not bad for you, though some people are more sensitive to it. It can also be found in Parmesan cheese. 

Red 40 and Yellow 5 are both made from gray powders, which are put through a hot chemical reaction and come out brightly colored. Food coloring dates back to 5000 BCE.

Shellac comes from the resin secreted by lac beetles, an Asian insect. The waterproof resin is a great sealant, and it’s used for sealing wax, varnish, nail polish, and printing ink. It’s also used as a seal on fruits and vegetables, gum, pills, and coffee beans. 

More food additives are made from corn than any other raw material except petroleum, according to Ettlinger. This includes corn flour, cornstarch, maltodextrin, dextrose, high-fructose corn syrup, and more.  It can be made into a thickener, a sweetener, a moisture-control agent, and a substitute for the mouthfeel of fat and eggs in desserts, among other things. 

Annatto provides the orange coloring of cheddar cheese, which is naturally white or at best, a little yellow. Its peppery flavor makes it popular in Latin American and Filipino cuisine. It also provides color for margarine and snack foods. 

Azodicarbonamide, or ADA, is an oxidizing agent that makes flour ferment faster. It strengthens and conditions dough for baked goods and breads, but once it comes into contact with moisture in the bread, it turns into a water-soluble compound called biurea, which passes easily through the body. ADA is rather infamous as the chemical that recently caused public outcry over Subway sandwich bread. It’s also found in rubber (and thus, yoga mats), however, studies have found that it’s safe to consume—the only danger from ADA is to the workers who make it, who can suffer after inhaling it in large quantities (like many other dusts).

Happy eating!

[h/t: Wired]

All images by Dwight Eschliman / Regan Arts

When You Feel "Chemistry" With Someone, What's Actually Going On?

We know chemistry when we feel it with another person, but we don't always know why we're drawn to one person over another. Is it just a cascade of neurotransmitters and hormones conspiring to rush you toward reproduction? Is it attraction borne of a set of shared values? Or is it bonding over specific experiences that create intimacy?

It's probably a combination of all three, plus ineffable qualities that even matchmaking services can't perfectly nail down.

"Scientists now assume, with very few exceptions, that any behavior has features of both genetics and history. It's nature and nurture," Nicole Prause, a sexual psychophysiologist and neuroscientist, tells Mental Floss. She is the founder of Liberos, a Los Angeles-based independent research center that works in collaboration with the University of Georgia and the University of Pittsburgh to study human sexual behavior and develop sexuality-related biotechnology.

Scientists who study attraction take into consideration everything from genetics, psychology, and family history to traumas, which have been shown to impact a person's ability to bond or feel desire.


Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University,'s science advisor, and the author of Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, breaks down "love" into three distinct stages: lust, attraction, and attachment. In each stage, your body chemistry behaves differently. It turns out that "chemistry" is, at least in part, actual chemistry. Biochemistry, specifically.

In the lust and attraction phases, your body is directing the show, as people can feel desire without knowing anything personal about the object of that desire. Lust, Fisher asserts in a seminal 1997 paper [PDF], is nothing more than the existence of a sex drive, or "the craving for sexual gratification," she writes. It's a sensation driven by estrogens and androgens, the female and male sex hormones, based in the biological drive to reproduce.

Attraction may be influenced less than lust by physiological factors—the appeal of someone's features, or the way they make you laugh—but your body is still calling the shots at this stage, pumping you full of the hormones cortisol, adrenaline, and dopamine, effecting your brain in a way that's not unlike the way illicit substances do.

Fisher has collaborated multiple times on the science of attraction with social psychologist Arthur Aron, a research professor at Stony Brook University in New York. Aron and his wife Elaine, who is also a psychologist, are known for studying what makes relationships begin—and last.

In a 2016 study in Frontiers in Psychology, the researchers proposed that "romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents by 4 million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction, seen cross-culturally today."

In the attraction phase, your body produces increased amounts of dopamine, the feel-good chemical that is also responsible for pain relief. Using fMRI brain imaging, Aron's studies have shown that "if you're thinking about a person you're intensely in love with, your brain activates the dopamine reward system, which is the same system that responds to cocaine," he tells Mental Floss.

Earlier, Fisher's 1997 paper found that new couples often show "increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and exquisite delight in smallest details of this novel relationship."

The attachment phase is characterized by increases in oxytocin and vasopressin; these hormones are thought to promote bonding and positive social behaviors to sustain connections over time in order to fulfill parental duties.

There is no hard and fast timeline for how long each phase lasts, as it can vary widely due to gender, age, and other environmental factors, Fisher writes.

Additionally, while oxytocin has long gotten the credit for being the love hormone, Prause says that scientists are now "kind of over oxytocin," because it has broader functions than simply bonding. It also plays a role in the contraction of the uterus to stimulate birth, instigating lactation, and sexual arousal; low levels have been linked to autism spectrum disorders. 

Now they're focusing on a charmingly named hormone known as kisspeptin (no, really). Produced in the hypothalamus, kisspeptin plays a role in the onset of puberty, and may increase libido, regulate the gonadal steroids that fuel the sex drive, and help the body maintain pregnancy. But Prause says there is a lot more study about the role kisspeptin plays in attraction.


Biology may explain our initial attraction and the "honeymoon" phase of a relationship, but it doesn't necessarily explain why a person's love of obscure movies or joy of hiking tickles your fancy, or what makes you want to settle down.

The Arons' numerous studies on this subject have found connection boils down to something quite simple: "What makes people attracted to the point of falling in love—presuming the person is reasonably appropriate for them—is that they feel the other person likes them," he says. 

In the process of doing research for her book How To Fall in Love With Anyone, writer Mandy Len Catron of Vancouver became her own test subject when she came across the research the Arons are most well-known for: their 36 questions, which promote bonding.

The questions were originally designed to "generate intimacy, a sense of feeling similar, and the sense that the other person likes you," Aron explains. Romantic love wasn't the goal. "It was a way of creating closeness between strangers."

The Arons first tested their questions by pairing up students during a regular class section of a large psychology course, as they related in a paper in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin. Some students were paired with someone of the same sex, while others were matched with someone of the opposite sex. Each partner then answered a series of 36 increasingly personal questions, which took about 45 minutes each. (Question 2: "Would you like to be famous? In what way?" Question 35: "Of all the people in your family, whose death would you find most disturbing? Why?") Small talk during class hadn't made them bond, but the questions made the students feel closer.

In another version of the study, heterosexual, opposite-sex pairs follow the 36-question session with four minutes of staring deeply into each other's eyes.

Catron decided to test these methods out with a casual acquaintance, Mark, over beers at a local bar one night. They were both dating other people at the time, and no one exclusively. As she answered the questions and listened to Mark's answers, "I felt totally absorbed by the conversation in a way that was unlike any of the other first dates I was having at the time with people I met online," Catron tells Mental Floss.

She was ready to skip the four minutes of soulful eye gazing, but Mark thought they should try it. "It was deeply uncomfortable, but it was also an important part of the experience," she recalls. "It's so intimate, it requires you to let your guard down."

The process instilled in Catron a deep feeling of trust in Mark and a desire to know him better. Within three months, they began dating in earnest. Now, more than three years later, they live together in a condo they bought.

The Arons' questions offer "accelerated intimacy," she says, in a time of increasingly online-driven dating experiences.


Despite all that we’ve learned, scientists may only ever be able to brush up against the edge of a true understanding of "chemistry." “We understand a fair amount about what happens when [attraction has] already occurred, but we're really bad at predicting when it will happen," Prause says. "People who try to claim magical matchmaking, or that they're going to somehow chemically manipulate an aphrodisiac or something—well good luck! Because we can't figure it out.”

And anyway, what's romance without a little mystery?

If you must have a definitive answer to the puzzle of interpersonal chemistry, Prause says to keep this in mind: "The best predictor of long-term outcomes is shared values."

David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
The Thermodynamic Genius of the Classic Drinking Bird Toy
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0
David Monniaux, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

If you're familiar with the drinking bird toy, you know it as a cheesy knickknack that's adorned office desktops for decades. But anyone with a background in thermodynamics knows that the novelty item deserves more credit. In his video spotted by Sploid, Bill Hammack—a.k.a. engineerguy—explains the impressive science at work every time the toy takes a sip.

To pull off its famous trick, a drinking bird toy must contain a special chemical compound called methylene chloride. When stored inside the toy it looks like colored water, but its properties are unique: It can transition easily from a liquid to a gas by essentially boiling at room temperature. Evaporated methylene chloride fills the bird's head while liquid methylene chloride fills the base of its body. Pressure differences caused by the condensing gas in the head encourage the liquid in the base to rise to the top of the toy, shifting the weight so its upper half topples forward into the glass in front of it. The liquid methylene chloride drains out in this new position and the balance of gas and liquid is restored. As long as the bird has enough room-temperature water to drink, the water will cool the methylene chloride vapor and start the whole process over again.

The result is a seemingly simple toy whose principles were actually complicated enough to baffle Albert Einstein. You can watch Hammack give a more detailed explanation of the science at work in the video below.

[h/t Sploid]


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