Dining Hall Secrets: Hidden Harmful Ingredients You Don’t Know You’re Eating

By Brigid McCuen on September 8, 2014

Freshman year: the year of the meal plan.  The year I could use my BuckID to pay for food rather than having to cook and grocery shop.  Looking back, my meal plan was extremely convenient, but I didn’t know much about what I was eating when I was simply ordering off of a menu.  Ever since moving into an off-campus house and cooking for myself, I’ve been paying attention to the ingredient lists of the foods I buy, and what I find is often alarming. I’ve come to the realization that the healthiness of a given meal option goes way beyond its fat content or how many carbs it contains, and that the ingredient list can tell you a lot more about the kind of stuff you’re putting into your body.  In the spirit of that truth, I want to shed light on some hidden ingredients in dining hall food that I wish I had known about in my meal plan days.

1. High Fructose Corn Syrup

We’ve all heard the horrors of high fructose corn syrup (HFCS), but may not realize how well it may be hidden in our daily diet.  HFCS is basically corn that’s been chemically concentrated into super sweet sugar.  It’s an ingredient in all kinds of seemingly healthy foods like cereals, breads, crackers, and more because it’s so cheap to produce, and tastes exactly like the real thing.  This “food-like substance has literally no nutritional value, spikes our blood sugar, and is turned into fat in the body almost immediately.  Even more alarming is the fact that HFCS has shown to be as addictive as cocaine and other drugs. Cocaine isn’t good for you, and neither is HFCS.

After looking through the dining hall nutrition information, I found this ingredient in a range of unsuspecting foods like Wheatberry bread, French toast, all hamburger and hot dog buns, wraps, and pasta salad.

2. Azodicarbonamide (ADA)

Remember when the news broke that Subway had a chemical in its bread that’s used in yoga mats?  Well, it turns out that that same ingredient, azodicarbonamide, is found in the dining halls as well.  ADA is used in yoga mats and other rubbery products to increase stretchiness; along that same vein, it’s used as an elasticity agent in bread products to make dough easier to knead. The chemical is banned altogether from the UK food industry, and studies have shown it may increase asthma, allergies and skin problems.  Its long-term effects are unknown, but based on the short-term, we shouldn’t stick around to find out what they are.

ADA is found in some dining hall breads, breadsticks, and mac ‘n’ cheese.

3. Carrageenan

Carrageenan is derived from a natural food, but that doesn’t mean it’s good for you.  It’s sourced from red seaweed and is used as a thickening agent in many dairy and soy products.  It’s been known to cause inflammation and to wreak havoc on the digestive system, and appears to “trigger an immune response similar to that your body has when invaded by pathogens like Salmonella.”  The fact that carrageenan is used so often is particularly alarming because it contains no nutritional value whatsoever and really only serves to keep liquid products from separating.

When it comes to the dining halls, I found carrageenan in ingredient lists of biscuits, gravy, ranch products, ice cream, tikka masala flatbreads, and naanwiches.

4. Partially Hydrogenated Oil

From the perspective of a food company, partially hydrogenated oils are great because they increase the shelf life of a product and are better for cooking, since they are chemically altered to be more stable in solid form (which is not a characteristic of natural oils).  However, from the perspective of the consumer, this type of oil is horrible because it’s full of trans fat, or “man-made fat,” which clogs our arteries and spikes our cholesterol.

Partially hydrogenated oils were found in the ingredient lists for Pasta Alfredo, onion petals, pretzel hoagies, Chicken Bacon Ranch pizza, and other ranch products.

As a student on a meal plan with limited menus, it can be difficult to avoid these ingredients.  However, nutritional information is available for every single meal item on OSU’s dining website.  A quick peek at the ingredient lists is an easy way to avoid unwanted chemicals and to improve the quality of your diet.  A good dietary guideline is to opt for meal choices with the shortest lists of ingredients – that means less chemicals are going into your body and you’re eating food close to its natural form, which is the way food should be eaten!


By Brigid McCuen

Uloop Writer

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