What’s in Your Bread? A Closer Look

It seems like it should be so simple. Flour, yeast, water. What more do you need to make bread? A lot, if ingredient labels are to be believed. 

If you purchase commercially prepared bread, as most Americans do, perhaps it’s time to explore what actually goes into this everyday staple. Reading the ingredient list on many store-bought breads can leave you wondering what in the world certain ingredients are, and what purpose they serve. Though sometimes it feels like you need a chemistry degree to make sense of unheard-of substances (calcium propionate? sodium stearoyl lactate?), you really don’t have to be an expert to make informed choices when it comes to your daily bread. A little education goes a long way.

Here’s a closer look to clarify several mystery ingredients that commonly appear in store-bought breads, and settle the score on whether they’re nefarious, harmless, or just…okay.

L-cysteine: Let’s start with the worst and get it out of the way. L-cysteine happens to be my favorite food additive to pick on because it’s just so quintessentially disgusting. An amino acid used to extend the shelf life of baked goods, it sounds fine until you realize that it’s made of–ready for this?–HUMAN HAIR and DUCK FEATHERS.

I get that it works to keep bread fresher longer, but frankly I can do without the feathers of water fowl in my diet. L-cysteine tops my list of weird bread ingredients to avoid.

DATEM: “Datem has a natural ring to it…like dates,” you might think. “But why did you capitalize it?” Well, DATEM isn’t exactly natural, and capitalized because it’s an acronym of diacetyl tartaric acid ester of mono- and diglycerides…which, according to my calculations, works out to “DTAEMAD,” but apparently DATEM is easier to say. This ingredient serves as an emulsifier that creates a chewy texture in bread. For my part, I prefer a bread with as few additives as possible, but the FDA lists it as “generally recognized as safe,” and the Center for Science in the Public Interest concurs.

Sodium stearoyl lactylate: On to another emulsifier/dough strengthener: sodium stearoyl lactylate. The science behind how this additive works is a bit vague, with one analysis stating, “little is known about the underlying mechanism” of its function. We do know it’s made of a combination of stearic acid and lactic acid, and typically derived from vegetable oil. Again, recognized as safe (but again, if you’re like me, you might prefer to skip it if you dislike unnecessary additives).

Monoglycerides: From your high school chemistry class, you might recognize the suffix “-glyceride” as meaning “fat.” Monoglycerides are a type of fatty acid also used to improve texture in bread. Though they’re typically only added in small quantities to bread, they do contain trace amounts of trans fat. Probably not going to kill you in small doses…and yet there is that pesky association with heart disease and stroke.

Cellulose gum: Ewwww, gum in your bread? Just kidding, not that kind of gum. Cellulose gum is derived from cell walls of plants like wood pulp or cotton (wait, maybe that’s worse?) and is used as a filler or thickener. It hasn’t been proven to be harmful, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest lists it as an ingredient to consume with caution, since a 2015 study found that it negatively affected gut bacteria. Plus, it might strike you as a little gross to eat something made of wood or cotton–or lint. Did I mention lint?

Modified wheat starch: Who knew bread needed so much thickening? Modified wheat starch is another bread thickener. Since it’s basically just added as filler, it’s not an especially desirable ingredient, but it is recognized as safe.

Wheat gluten: Contrary to popular belief, gluten isn’t some poisonous bogeyman. It’s actually just a protein that helps bread stay nice and elastic. If you have a problem digesting gluten, you’d want to avoid it, but in that case, I don’t know what you’d be doing eating bread in the first place. Added wheat gluten poses no other known problems for consumption.

For my money, bread doesn’t require much (if anything) beyond a handful of basic, familiar ingredients. A good rule of thumb is to look for as short an ingredient label as possible. Anything else can help shelf life and texture, but do we really need it? Nah. If you have concerns about bread going bad, you can always store it in the freezer and take it out piece by piece. Trader Joe’s offers several varieties with less than five ingredients, I’m happy to recommend Dave’s Killer Bread and Ezekiel 4:9 Bread as well. Also, whenever you can, for the healthiest choice, reach for 100% whole wheat.

What’s your favorite bread? Have you taken a look at what’s in it? What did you discover?

Mashed Potatoes with Goat Cheese and Sage

Here’s a random tidbit: when you start a Google search with the words “how many people do…” Google does NOT assume you are asking it about potatoes and how many pounds feed how many people. No, my friends, Google wants to answer these other, far more intriguing questions:

Because apparently a lot more people want to know how many of us are getting killed by hippos than how many potatoes to buy to feed a crowd. Not sure how to take this, but I feel like it says something about our priorities?

Anyway, though I am (now) a bit curious how many people die annually from hippo attacks, I really did want to know about mashed potato portions, because it’s an area of culinary expertise that eludes me. Mashed potatoes seem like one of those foods that defy boundaries. There’s nothing exact about them. And since they so often appear as just one item in a multi-item meal (Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, let’s say), anything from a dollop to a pile seems fairly reasonable.

Well, it’s time to settle the score. The OFFICIAL serving size of mashed potatoes, as dictated by the Food and Drug Administration, is 140 grams. Since no one in the U.S. measures their food in grams (get it together, FDA!), allow me to interpret. 140 grams = 5 ounces, which for potatoes equals about 1/2 cup.

Therefore, if you want to make mashed potatoes for eight people, like this recipe does, 5 oz x 8 people = 40 ounces, or 2 1/2 pounds. Assuming no one’s going crazy with a potato free-for-all.


That’s how, even with creamy goat cheese, whole milk, and a bit of butter, these delicious, sage-kissed mashed potatoes end up with only 200 calories per serving. Portion control, y’all.

This hearty side dish makes a spot-on accompaniment to meat dishes like ham, pork chops, or meatloaf. What favorite meal would YOU serve it with?

Print Recipe
Mashed Potatoes with Goat Cheese and Sage
Mashed potatoes get a flavor makeover with creamy goat cheese and fresh sage in this side dish.
  1. Cook potatoes in a large saucepan of boiling water until tender, 12-15 minutes. Drain and return to the pan. Add goat cheese and butter and mash or blend with an immersion blender (the immersion blender does a much nicer job getting a creamy texture!). Add milk and sage continue to mash/blend until smooth. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.
Recipe Notes

Adapted from Bon Appetit.

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10 Healthy Appetizers for a Guilt-Free Super Bowl

Recently a package of coupons from my local grocery store arrived in the mail. In capital letters, the cover of the little mailer urged the reader to “GEAR UP FOR THE BIG GAME!”

“Huh,” I thought. “I wonder what big game they’re talking about.”

Can you tell I’m not a football fan?

Never have been. I couldn’t tell you who is playing whom at the Big Game February 4th, or which team won any Super Bowl…ever. Generally, our family treats Super Bowl Sunday as a bonus day to do any activity or visit any destination that would normally be busy. We once went on a 30-minute bike ride and saw a total of three cars on the road. I’m telling you, it’s like the Apocalypse, without the zombies and 20-foot-tall radioactive rabbits.

Every few years, though, we get invited to a Super Bowl party, so we decide we could pretend we’re regular Americans for an afternoon. Getting together with friends is unfailingly fun, and there’s always plenty of food. (As you probably can tell if you’re aware of the name of this blog, that’s *kind of* a big deal to me.)

But, man, for an event that glorifies athleticism, the average Super Bowl party is notorious for offering food that makes the health-conscious cringe. The usual fried finger foods and extra creamy dips make for a grease-fest that can derail positive eating habits that may have just begun in January.

What if we could up the health ante by showing up to the party with an appetizer that’s both delicious and actually good for us? This recipe roundup provides ten lighter appetizers to choose from, ensuring that at least one healthy option is part of the buffet on game day.

Go Team Whatever!

1. Mediterranean 7-Layer Dip

Let’s start right here on the blog with Mediterranean 7-Layer Dip: the healthy, flavorful answer to traditional layered dips. Serve with pita chips or veggies!

2. Baked Cheddar Broccoli Tots

Via Dinner, Then Dessert

When a picture of a broccoli dish actually makes your mouth water, it’s got to be good. Try these baked veggie-packed tots as an alternative to fried tater tots.

3. Skinny Mexican Pizza

Via Snixy Kitchen

Refried beans, veggies, and an avocado cream round out this skinny version of Mexican pizza. YUM!

4. Thai Peanut Salad Wonton Cups

Via The Busy Baker

What’s gorgeously colorful, full of Asian flavor, and even happens to be vegan? Thai Peanut Salad Wonton Cups! Psst…these might just be my top choice for the Super Bowl party we’re attending.

5. Dysfunctional Family Recipe Salsa

Another one from A Love Letter to Food! Isn’t the Super Bowl a special enough occasion to make your own salsa? Once you try this homemade kind, jarred salsa won’t hold a candle.

6. Fruit Salsa with Cinnamon Crisps

Via Spend With Pennies

And speaking of salsa, how about a sweet version? Fruit salsas provide a unique way to sneak in some extra nutrition on game day.

7. Tortellini Skewers with Olives, Tomatoes, and Cheese

Via Diethood

Mediterranean flavors for the win once again! These skewers of tortellini, tomatoes, olives, and mozzarella get drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar to finish.

8. Skinny Creamy Taquitos

Via Center Cut Cook

When you live in the Southwest, there is no way your Super Bowl party cannot feature Mexican food. Keep Mexican in the mix (just a little healthier) with these lightened up chicken taquitos.

9. Baked Buffalo Cauliflower “Wings”

Via Gimme Delicious

No, cauliflower does not actually have wings. But you might not be too worried about it when you sink your teeth into these bites of buffalo deliciousness.

10. Creamy Carrot Dip with Crudites

Via Robust Recipes

Hummus, you’re so 2009. This creamy carrot dip is the new spread on the block. Serve with crudités for double the veggie goodness.

So…which one looks best to you? Or what other healthy apps are on your list for game day? Tell me in the comments!

Red Velvet Cookie Cake

I’ve never really thought about it before, but cookie cakes have played kind of a major role in my life.

It started in high school. Junior year when my husband and I were dating, there was a Sadie Hawkins’-style dance called MORP (backwards prom). Everything about it was supposed to be the opposite of the regular protocol for school dances. Instead of dressing up in our fancy best, couples were supposed to dress exactly alike. (This was much trickier in the ’90s, before the age of gender neutralized clothing.) The dance was casual instead of formal; even the photo backdrop was a departure from the usual Grecian columns and silky fabrics:

Ah yes, here we are, dressed alike and casually hanging out on our garland-draped ATV. (Who comes up with this stuff?)

The final detail of MORP was that the girl was supposed to ask the guy to the dance in some clever way. I guess food has always been my love language, because I decided to present my then-boyfriend-now-husband with a cookie cake popping the question in frosting. Unfortunately, “Will you go to MORP with me?” was too long to fit on the cookie I ended up ordering, and instead, I remember it just had the word MORP with a giant question mark.


Good thing he knew what I was talking about, or he probably would have thought I was suffering from some sort of delicious aphasic episode.

Fast forward several years. When we found out I was pregnant with our first child, we figured we’d break out the old cookie cake communication trick to inform my husband’s parents of their new grandparent status. We had been tasked to bring dessert to Sunday dinner. Imagine my in-laws’ surprise when they read the happy news in frosted lettering. Good memories.

With this history, cookie cakes have always held a place in my heart as special occasion desserts. So the other night when a friend and her daughter joined us for dinner, I decided a red velvet cookie cake sounded like just the delectable treat to serve after dinner.

When our visiting friend and I took our first bites, we looked at each other and went, “Oh. WOW.” The subtly flavored chocolate cookie dotted with white chocolate chips and covered with smooth cream cheese frosting made for an amazing finish to dinner. Cookie cakes for the win once again!

With Valentine’s Day on the horizon, or for any special occasion, consider this decadent dessert. You don’t even have to spell out any messages on it. It’s special enough all by itself.

Print Recipe
Red Velvet Cookie Cake
Perfect for Valentine's Day, this frosted red velvet cookie cake is a decadent treat!
small slices
small slices
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Spray a 10-inch tart pan with cooking spray. In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugars until light and fluffy. Add egg, egg yolk, vanilla, food coloring, and vinegar and mix to combine.
  2. Add flour, cocoa powder, corn starch, baking powder, and salt and mix until just combined. Stir in white chocolate chips. Pour into prepared pan, smoothing the top of the batter until even. Bake 30 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, make the frosting: In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese and butter until smooth. Gradually beat in powdered sugar, then vanilla and milk, until smooth and spreadable.
  4. When cookie cake has completely cooled, spread frosting in a smooth layer on top. Sprinkle with colored sprinkles, if using. Keep refrigerated.
Recipe Notes

Cookie cake adapted from Just So Tasty. Frosting from Betty Crocker.

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Sun Dried Tomato Almond Pesto Pasta with Chicken

Sometimes I think it’s a scandal that sun dried tomatoes don’t cost more. I’ve never made them myself (though, living in the Phoenix area, we’re certainly not short on sun…or dryness…or tomatoes), but I do have a dim sense of how much time and effort go into the end product of these shrivelly red strips. The process goes something like this: 1. Pick tomatoes 2. Wash tomatoes 3. Cut tomatoes 4. Season tomatoes 5. Dry tomatoes in the sun for days on end 6. Package tomatoes. Seems like an awful lot of work–and an awful lot of tomatoes, seeing as how they lose around 90% of their original weight and shrink down to less than half their original size upon drying.

Yet there they are, a whole bag of them for only $3.00 at Trader Joe’s. Isn’t our food system strange?

Despite the seemingly inverse relationship between cost and effort in sun dried tomatoes, I for one am quite thankful for their relative inexpensiveness, because I adoooooore them. Chewy, brightly colored, and tangy-sweet, I happen to think they bring their A-game to any dish they grace.

And wouldn’t you know it, they make a pretty spectacular main ingredient in pesto.

This Sun Dried Tomato Almond Pesto Pasta with Chicken took its place on our family’s weeknight dinner plan last week, and it’s definitely an entree I’ll be making again. Whole grain spaghetti, olive oil, tomatoes, and almonds place it squarely in the Mediterranean Diet category–a category I’ve been known to harp on relentlessly for its many health benefits. (By the way, didja see the new U.S. News and World Report ranking of diets for 2017? The Mediterranean Diet comes in at the top of nearly every category they analyzed.)

Health benefits aside, this chicken pasta boasts excellent taste and can be whipped up in about 30 minutes. Add it to your meal plan this week!

Print Recipe
Sun Dried Tomato Almond Pesto Pasta with Chicken
A Mediterranean chicken dish packed with the healthy goodness of tomatoes, olive oil, and almonds.
Course Main Dish, pasta
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Course Main Dish, pasta
Prep Time 10 minutes
Cook Time 20 minutes
Make the pesto:
  1. Add tomatoes, almonds, olive oil, lemon juice, and garlic to the bowl of a food processor. Process until nearly smooth, then taste and add salt and pepper to your liking. Set pesto aside.
Make the pasta and chicken:
  1. Make the spaghetti according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, season chicken on both sides with basil, oregano, salt, pepper, and garlic powder.
  3. In a large nonstick skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. olive oil over medium-high heat. Add seasoned chicken and cook about 4 minutes per side or until internal temperature reaches 165 degrees F.
  4. Serve immediately: assemble entree with any combination of spaghetti, pesto, and chicken you like!
Recipe Notes

A Love Letter to Food Original Recipe.

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