Learn the science behind:
If you have ever made American-style pancakes (those thick fluffy ones) at home, you know with how little ingredients you can whisk up a perfectly fine pancake. Take some flour, salt, baking powder and a little sugar, mix it with some eggs and milk and that’s pretty much it. Of course, you can vary: add some carrots or pumpkin, use oat milk instead of cow’s.
So it must be confusing to see a way longer list of ingredients when you buy a pack of pancake mix, or ready made pancakes. Why are they there? Why all those extra’s?
Manufacturing these products at a way larger scale than at home, which need a longer shelf life, while keeping them affordable, results in different ingredient choices than you might make at home. In this post, part of the ‘decoding labels’ series we look at pancakes mixes to help you understand why the ingredients on the label are there.
The pancake labels
At the bottom of this post we share a recipe for standard homemade American style pancakes. As you can see, it’s a short ingredient list. For this label decoding exercise, we’ll be adding four commercial products to the list. Two that can be found in the USA and two that can be found on the Dutch market. Of each market we’re taking a pre-mix that only needs water to be transformed into a batter and ready-to-heat pancakes.
A quick note: Dutch pancakes are a little different than American ones, they’re flatter and have a larger diameter. Instead of stacking them, you’d roll them up with a filling inside (bit like a crepe, but thicker).
Here’s our list:
- Home made pancakes – see recipe below
- USA – Pancake mix from Aunt Jemina
- USA – Ready to heat freezer pancakes from Krusteaz
- NL – Pancake mix from Albert Heijn
- NL – Ready-to-heat pancakes from Albert Heijn
Comparing time & effort
Of course, the differences in required time and effort are obvious. It’ll probably take you at least half an hour to whip up your home made pancakes (for which you’ll need to find the recipe first) or the ones from the mix. Whereas you’ll be finished within five minutes for the ready to heat pancakes.
One of the most important parts of the label is the list of ingredients. Here is where we’ll focus most of our time and effort.
- Home made: flour, milk, egg, baking powder (disodium-dihydrogen phosphate (E450), sodium hydrogen carbonate (E500) ), sugar
- USA – Pancake mix: flour (enriched with vitamins), sugar, leavening (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminium phosphate, monocalcium phosphate), dextrose, nonfat dry milk, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, wheat gluten, calcium carbonate, corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate, mono- and diglycerides, lactic acid
- USA – Freezer pancakes: flour (enriched with vitamins), water, buttermilk, whey, sugar, dextrose, soy flour, soybean/canola oil, leavening (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), eggs, salt, soy lecithin (emulsifier)
- NL – pancake mix: wheat flour, whey powder, buckwheat flour, egg powder, salt, raising agent (E341, E450, E500), glucose syrup, wheat starch
- NL – ready-to-heat pancakes: water, flour (wheat, rye), egg, vegetable oil, sugar, skimmed milk powder, whey powder, fractionated butter fat, raising agents (E500, E575), salt, emulsifying agent (lecithin), conservation agent (E202), thickening agent (xanthan gum)
The big six
You can quickly see some similarities in the recipe. Common themes, which we’ll discuss one by one, are exactly those you’ll find in your homemade pancakes as well: flour, sugar, salt, milk, leavening agents & eggs.
All pancakes contain some sort of flour. The flour is what holds the pancakes together. Wheat flour is the most common one.
In the US flour have to be enriched with a selection of vitamins & minerals. Therefore, the flour in these pancakes is enriched and makes the ingredient list look longer. This enrichment is done to make up for losses of nutrients during processing. White flour does not contain the bran nor germ of the flour (see infographic on flour) which would normally contain these nutrients. In Europe enrichment is not a standard procedure so you won’t find it on the label.
You can also see the use of rye or buckwheat flour in Dutch pancakes. These contribute flavour to the pancakes. The wheat starch & gluten in the commercial packs contribute structure and are just specific parts of the wheat grain.
One of the American pancakes contains soy flour. There is no specific reason you need soy flour. Most likely it is used to bring costs down.
Sugars in pancakes
The main role of sugars in pancake mixes is to sweeten them. Too much sugar will make a crispier pancake and change the structure. Comparing sugars gets a little more complicated. In your home made pancakes we only add regular sugar, the chemical name of which is sucrose. Most commercial pancakes also contain this sugar.
However, there’s more: dextrose & corn syrup (is similar to glucose syrup) are also present. So why do manufacturers use dextrose & corn syrup? A common reason could be costs, these can be cheaper than sugar. Also, their sweetness is a little less intense than that of sugar.
Salt really doesn’t need much explaining. Every product contains salt. Salt plays an incredibly important role for flavour improvement. It can lift up the flavours of a pancake, without you necessarily tasting the salt. That said, you can make pancakes perfectly fine without them.
Milk in pancakes
Last but not least, let’s look at milk. We use milk in the homemade pancakes for two reasons: to add liquid to bring the flour together in a batter & to add flavour (the proteins & fat enrich the pancakes).
In the commercial pancakes the milk is hidden a little more. Non-fat dry milk & skimmed milk powder are the dried version of skimmed milk. Once mixed with the water in these mixes they will turn back into milk. Sodium caseinate as well as whey are large fractions of proteins in milk that can be added as dry powders. Buttermilk of course is the slightly acidic counterpart of milk.
So why not just use dried milk instead of all those proteins? Apart from costs being a big driver, manufacturers might want to target a specific protein content or flavour profile that these ingredients contribute to.
Most pancakes contain a leavening agent (baking powder and/or baking soda) to create those bubbles inside. In the American pancakes you can easily identify them. Phosphates and carbonates are what make the leavening agent work.
In the European pancakes the ingredients are hidden behind their E-numbers, but again, they serve a similar funtion. E341 is a calcium phosphate which serves this role, similar to disodium dihydrogen diphospate. E575 is glucono-D-lactone and is used as an acid to trigger the raising of a pancake.
Role of eggs
Eggs serve a variety of functions. The fat in the egg enriches the pancake. The proteins help to keep its structure and the moisture hydrate the overall mix. You will find eggs, whether they are dried or not, in most pancakes.
The less obvious ingredients
So, once we cross out all the ingredients we just discussed. There’s only a short list left of ingredients we have to discuss.
- Home made:
flour, milk, egg, baking powder (disodium-dihydrogen phosphate (E450), sodium hydrogen carbonate (E500) ), sugar
- USA – Pancake mix:
flour (enriched with vitamins), sugar, leavening (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminium phosphate, monocalcium phosphate), dextrose, nonfat dry milk, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, salt, wheat gluten, calcium carbonate, corn syrup solids, sodium caseinate,mono- and diglycerides, lactic acid
- USA – Freezer pancakes:
flour (enriched with vitamins), water, buttermilk, whey, sugar, dextrose, soy flour,soybean/canola oil, leavening (sodium bicarbonate, sodium aluminium phosphate, sodium acid pyrophosphate, monocalcium phosphate), eggs, salt,soy lecithin (emulsifier)
- NL – pancake mix:
wheat flour, whey powder, buckwheat flour, egg powder, salt, raising agent (E341, E450, E500), glucose syrup, wheat starch
- NL – ready-to-heat pancakes:
water, flour (wheat, rye), egg,vegetable oil, sugar, skimmed milk powder, whey powder,fractionated butter fat, raising agents (E500, E575), salt,emulsifying agent (lecithin), conservation agent (E202), thickening agent (xanthan gum)
Fat & oils in pancakes
When you make pancakes, you’d have to bake them in a little bit of fat, to prevent them from sticking. also, you canadd some fat to the batter to help soften the pancake. Our products contain a range of fats.
Partially hydrogenated soybean oil and soybean/canola oil are used in the USA pancakes. Hydrogenated means that the fat in the oil have been made more solid. The Dutch pancakes contain regular vegetable oil or fractionated butter. This type of butter is butter from which only some of the fats have been used.
Emulsifiers are used to help mix fats with water. Normally, they would not mix and separate easily. Emulsifiers help them stay mixed. When you make large batches of batter this can be necessary to ensure all pancakes have the same composition. Our products contain (soy) lecithin and mono- and diglycerides which all serve this function.
In order to extend the shelf life of the pancakes or pancake mixes preservatives can be added. The lactic acid is one example of a preservative. Lactic acid is acidic and is known to help ward off micro organisms.
E202 stands for potassium sorbate. This salt is very effective in preventing growth of a lot of yeasts and moulds, which are often a problem for bread products.
Thickening agent & Colour
It’s hidden, but there’s a colour in one of the mixes as well: calcium carbonate. It helps the mixture and final pancake stay a nice white colour.
Last but not least, there’s one more ingredient: the xantham gum used in dutch ready-to-heat pancakes. Xantham gum is used to thicken batters or final products. It helps stabilize the consistency. Again, not a must, but it most likely helps the manufacturer during the production process.
It’s hard to compare nutritional value of these products. Your own pancakes may change a little in composition every time you make them. If you use the box the size of your pancake may be different every time. Also, when you make your pancakes at home you will still be using some sort of fat to make them, which adds to the overall nutritional content.
I find it fascinating that people want both homemade fresh food & very easy, fast to prepare, well tasting food. In some cases, those two are pretty hard to both fulfill at the same time. In order for something to be fast and easy, it might be hard to keep it fresh. Additional ingredients may be required, packaging is used to preserve, etc. I don’t think one or the other is necessarily better or worse, but it’s good to see the differences. Hopefully this label decoding exercise helps you understand your foods a little better.
FDA, Legislation on enrichment of wheat flours, link