When we pick up food from the grocery store, it’s safe to assume that everything in it is safe for our consumption. But just because it’s safe doesn’t mean it’s not gross. From wood chips to ‘natural flavoring,’ here are 15 Gross Secret Ingredients in Everyday Food.
15. Cochineal Beetles
In 2012, Starbucks was under fire after customers discovered they were putting cochineal beetles in their strawberry-flavored drinks. The crushed-up beetles are used as a red dye in the food industry and can be found in products such as meat, sausage, red marinades, jams, gelatin desserts, juices, icings, toppings, and confections. The cochineal is native to Mexico and South America, and they’re not actually beetles; they’re small insects that live on cactuses. They eat the red berries on the cactuses, which gives the females a red coloring. To make dye, they’re harvested, killed, dried out in the sun, and then crushed. The powder is then mixed with water, which creates the coloring found in our food products. It takes 70,000 of these insects for just 1 pound of dye! You heard it right; there’s not just one insect in your drink; there’s way more!
14. Sick Poultry
If you swear by the restorative powers of chicken noodle soup, you’re in for a shock: the chicken in it might have been sicker than you are. Researchers from Johns Hopkins University tested chicken feathers and found a laundry list of feed additives, including banned antibiotics, antidepressants, allergy medications, arsenic, the active ingredient in Benadryl, caffeine, and other prescription and over-the-counter drugs. If you want some non-medicated poultry, we would definitely recommend going the organic route instead.
13. Sodium Bisulfite
Sodium bisulfite is created by combining sulfuric acid and table salt. It can be used as a cleaner to help purify toxic wastewater but in food, it’s used as a food preservative. Manufacturers add sulfites into their products to decrease the growth of bacteria and fungi, which in turn preserves the food. This is why sodium bisulfite can be found in many items – wine, potato chips, and dried fruits, to name a few – as a food preservative. But, unlike some of the other products on this list, sodium bisulfite may not be healthy for consumption. It’s been known to cause allergic reactions (like asthma or a rash) and, in some cases, even death. Because of these consequences, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned the use of sodium bisulfite in fruit fruits and vegetables. Unfortunately though, this hasn’t stopped people from using it. In 2012, a report stated that illegal levels of sodium bisulfite were found in about 5% of meat samples.
Isinglass is gelatin made from fish bladders (ew), and its use can be traced back to before gelatin was widely available. Once upon a time, it was used in desserts and confectioneries. Nowadays, we can most commonly find it in beers, where it’s used to help make the beer clearer. Typically, isinglass is made out of the bladder of a sturgeon, but now many different tropical fish are used in the clarification process. Today its use is mostly confined to cask ales in the UK as well as to some craft brewers who also use it to clarify beer without the use of filtration. Vegetarians and vegans, you heard that right: beer has animal products in it. Even though a very small amount of isinglass is still in the beer by the time it’s ready to be drunk, many people still consider it unsuitable for some restricted diets. Thankfully, though, there are beer companies who have created vegetarian-friendly, isinglass-free beer!
11. Ammonium Sulfate
If you’ve ever cleaned with ammonia cleaner, you know that the scent is… Less than pleasant. The question is then, why is it in our food? Ammonium sulfate is an inorganic salt with a number of commercial uses. The most common use is as a soil fertilizer. It contains 21% nitrogen and 24% sulfur. When it’s being used as a fertilizer, it helps to kill bacteria, fungus, and unwanted vegetation. It can also be found in our bread, feeding the yeast in the baking process. Get this: ammonium sulfate can cause severe irritation and inflammation of the respiratory tract if inhaled. Eating or drinking this substance will irritate the gastrointestinal tract, like nausea. Luckily, though, it’s only toxic when consumed in high quantities, so a small amount here and there won’t do you any harm. That’s probably why the FDA claims that ammonium sulfate is generally safe for consumption.
10. Propylene Glycol
Propylene glycol is used as a food additive or as an ingredient in many health and cosmetic products. It’s commonly used in antifreeze, but it can also be found in your prepackaged salads! Because it can dissolve things better than water and is good at retaining moisture, propylene glycol is a very useful food additive. There are plenty of food items that include this additive, but not all of them list it on their label. Some of these products include soft drinks, frozen meals, artificial sweeteners, foods with natural flavorings, spices, marinades and dressing, cake mixes, frosting, food colorings, and baked goods. If you’re worried about whether this product is safe or not, don’t worry. Even though the World Health Organization fears that intakes of propylene glycol are above what is healthy, both the American and European FDAs have agreed that it is indeed somewhat safe.
9. Butylated Hydroxyanisole
Butylated hydroxyanisole, also known as BHA, is a preservative that can be found in potato chips, butter, cereal, chewing gum, and many other foods. It can also be found in rubber, petroleum products, and, of course, wax food packaging. The reason it can be found in so many different products is that it’s an extremely powerful antioxidant. In other words, it helps prevent food from going bad. Studies were done on rats, mice, and hamsters at high doses, and it showed that this preservative is known to cause cancer. However, it causes cancer exclusively in the forestomach, something that humans don’t have. In low doses, many researchers say that this preservative is safe (especially considering we don’t even have a forestomach), and it can even neutralize the threat of other cancer-causing agents. Even though there’s evidence that BHA is safe, some still don’t want to consume it, just in case. Partly because people are not exactly sure if it’ll have some unseen effect on humans, but also because we have a perfectly healthy alternative: vitamin E. Well, whether you consume it or not, rest assured that this is considered safe by the FDA, so you’re probably in the clear.
8. Potassium Bromate
In 2007, Chinese authorities removed a batch of imported snack chips from store shelves because they thought the chips contained potassium bromate, which is a food additive banned in China. Where were these snacks imported from? The United States, of course! It’s not just China that has banned this additive: Canada, Europe, Brazil, and a lot of other countries have all banned it too. This is because it’s been shown to cause cancer in rats and mice, specifically in the liver and thyroid. In America, though, it’s still legal, and it has been since 1914. Potassium bromate is commonly used in bread as an oxidizing agent. It makes the bread unnaturally white and fluffy in a short amount of time. Ideally, at the end of baking, the potassium bromate gets baked, and most of it disappears, but we can’t be entirely sure of that. And, whenever bromated flour isn’t baked long enough or at a temperature too low, this harmful additive can potentially be found in the final product is far greater quantities than what is safe for people to consume. Today, many small and commercial bakeries voluntarily avoid using bromated flour. However, it’s still found in many fast food buns and some flours, among other products. In other words, keep an eye out, and try to avoid it when you can.
7. Sodium Nitrite
Sodium nitrite is a food preservative that fights bacteria in ham, salami, and other processed and cured meats. It’s also what gives them their iconic pink coloration. But, under certain conditions of the human body, nitrite and nitrates can cause cancer. There have even been calls to remove these preservatives from bacon and ham in order to reduce potential harm to consumers. However, they’re not all bad. The high natural nitrate content of beetroot juice has been credited with lowering blood pressure and enhancing exercise performance. Nitrates are also the active ingredient in some medications for angina, a condition in which a reduced blood flow causes chest pain. The truth is, the effect of nitrites is based on the chemicals around them, meaning that there are some that are perfectly okay to consume. If you want to eat the right kinds of nitrates and nitrites and avoid the potentially carcinogenic ones, then eat a widely varied diet with at least five servings a day of fruit and vegetables, and avoid nibbling on processed meats too often. That way, the benefits of nitrates and nitrates will almost certainly outweigh the downsides.
6. Soybean Oil
Soybean oil is a popular form of vegetable oil that’s extracted from soybean seeds. But, due to the manufacturing processes surrounding it, it can actually be one of the worst oils to use in cooking. Among the problems with partially hydrogenated soybean oil is its trans fat content and the health hazards of the soy itself, as well as the prevalence of genetically engineered soybeans. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, 94 percent of soybeans today are grown using herbicide-tolerant seeds. Thankfully, in an effort to address health concerns about how hydrogenated oils — the primary dietary source of trans fats — could be causing thousands of heart attacks and deaths each year, the FDA decided in 2015 that PHOs should no longer be considered “generally recognized as safe,” and started a campaign wherein food manufacturers were given three years to phase out trans fat from their products, with the ban officially taking effect on June 18, 2018. This marked a turning point for public health, as The Washington Post reported that trans fat consumption soon drastically lowered. Between 2015 and 2018, companies were able to remove 98 percent of trans fat from the market, showing that change truly is possible.
Not to burst your bubble, but there may be something a little unexpected in the next pack of chewing gum you pick up. It’s called lanolin, which is just a fancy word for oil that’s produced in a sheep’s wool. These greasy secretions are used as softeners in foods and masked with the vague food label “gum base.” Lanolin is also used as an emollient in beauty products, from skin and hair care to cosmetics. If you’re looking to avoid it, there are plenty of vegan options out there that are thankfully sheep oil-free.
Shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug, an insect found in trees in India and Thailand. This product is found in the hard, shiny shells of candy, so sweet tooths beware! You may know shellac from its more famous work in varnishes and sealants, but it’s also a mainstay in pill coatings, candy, coffee beans, and even the waxy sheen on apples and other fruits and vegetables. If you’re looking to avoid eating more bugs than you signed up for, we suggest taking a break from hard candies. Unfortunately, shellac can even be found in the wax on vegetables, so before you eat a veggie, be sure to give it a good scrub!
Defining food regulations has been something argued about for centuries. Questions- like, “What can you put into bread?” turns into, “What is bread in the first place?” You might think that bread only has four ingredients: flour, water, salt, and yeast, but bakers have long since been adding something extra: wood, sawdust, wood chips, whatever you want to call it, it’s in there. They started doing this back in the 1700s, when they wanted to sell food to the poor, keeping their wallets (and their bellies) full at the same time. So, someone decided to mix flour with sawdust because you can’t really tell the difference. They would sell the bread by weight, meaning that they were protecting their livelihoods, while everyone else suffered the consequences. The health of customers went down, as did the credibility of the bread market. Mills and bakers that used sawdust, chalk, and other fillers could undercut those that didn’t and put them out of business. This called for the rise of companies like Nabisco and Quaker Oats in the 19th and 20th centuries, advertising that their products were ‘pure.’ Nowadays, instead of using wood, companies add cellulose, which is a plant fiber. It’s used to add fiber to bread (surprising, we know), make ice cream creamier without having to use actual cream, and to keep things like shredded cheese from sticking to itself. Oh, and that FDA says that it’s safe for human consumption.
Did you know that some processed bread use L-cysteine, an amino acid that comes from duck feathers? It’s used as a dough softener and can be found in bagels, cookie dough, bread, pies, and more! While there are other sources of this filler available, a 2007 investigation by the nonprofit Vegetarian Resource Group found that about 80% of L-cysteine was derived from our feathered friend. If you’re not in the mood for a duck, we would suggest taking a look at the nutritional tag on your favorite bread and avoiding whatever lists L-cysteine.
While many vegetarians enjoy cheese as a great source of protein without having to eat meat, some cheeses aren’t exactly meat-free. That’s because a lot of cheeses are made with rennet, a substance containing an enzyme extracted from the fourth stomach of newborn calves (the calves aren’t killed exclusively for rennet, rather their meat, which is why many vegetarians stay away from it). Rennet is used as a cheese curdler, sometimes in tandem with another enzyme called pepsin, which is extracted from the stomach glands of hogs. Fortunately, some companies are using alternatives that result in truly vegetarian cheese. Check food labels, and be wary of ingredients listed merely as “enzymes.”