Label.ology ; L-cysteine

November 20, 2014

In this feature, we’re taking labels apart.

It’s important to understand all the stuff that’s in what you buy. Then and only then can you can decide if you want it in your food, on your body or in your home.
So I decided to put all my years of label reading to good use.
Why label.ology? Well, the definition of ‘-ology’, that’s why: “the scientific study of a particular subject.”
It’s amazing to me how ingredients we might not want to consume are cloaked in complicated names; and with nutrition panels that read like a Russian novel, you have to be a detective to decipher what’s in your food.
Not anymore! I give you…label.ology
L-what? Don’t you just marvel at the things allowed to be in our food? That are considered ‘safe’? Even the names don’t sound natural. ‘L-Cysteine.’ Say it in a deep Darth Vadar sort of voice and its impact on your life will become clear.
Okay, to the facts.  You might remember on an episode of ‘Jaime Oliver’s Food Revolution’ he made ice cream with kids at a school. The children blended ice cream treats with duck feathers and other less-than-natural additives in our processed foods. It was to illustrate in a graphic way what some of the additives in our food really look like.
That little episode ensured some people never look at cookie dough ice cream the same way again.
L-cysteine is made from duck feathers or human hair (seriously???) and considered natural protein since it can be digested as an amino acid. It is used in several products from bread to…wait for it…you guessed it, cookie dough.
According to the Vegetarian Resource Group, most of L-cysteine comes from China and while many manufacturers claim it to be from duck feathers or human hair, 90% seems to come from hog hair. One option is more disgusting than the next.
And the purpose?
Used as a dough conditioner or dough strengthener, l-cysteine makes dough more manageable and hold its shape, like when pizza dough snaps back after stretching it. It is also a precursor in the food, pharmaceutical, and personal-care industries. One of the largest applications is the production of flavors. For instance, the reaction of cysteine with sugars yields meat flavors in various foods. Like I always say, with enough chemicals, we can make anything taste like chicken!
L-cysteine is listed on labels, usually in parentheses after “dough conditioner.” However, it’s not required to be listed if L-cysteine is an ingredient used to make other ingredients which are in a final product. Got that? Another good reason not to buy processed foods.
Can it harm us? The FDA tells us L-cysteine is regarded as a safe additive in our food. And maybe it is. People eat animal food all the time.
But gross? You bet. Necessary? Doesn’t seem to be. I’d skip products with this ingredient, but that’s me.