How well do you know what goes into your food? It’s one thing to read food labels, but it’s another to understand what those ingredients mean — and something else entirely to know what’s used in the process that doesn’t make it to the label. From beaver butts to bug poop, here are seven disgusting things hidden in the food you eat and the products you buy every day.
We know that breathing in carbon monoxide is hazardous and potentially deadly, but did you know that it’s used to package certain foods? Carbon monoxide stops the oxidation process of meat, keeping it a bright pink color and preventing it from turning brown. Most commonly it’s injected into the plastic shrink-wrap of ground beef, tilapia and tuna after the air has been sucked out of the package. The amount used is so small it’s not thought to be a health risk, but consumer advocates are concerned that it hasn’t been thoroughly investigated because it’s approved by the FDA as a color fixative and not a color additive, according to the Washington Post. It may seem like a small difference, but it’s one that requires an intensive, rigorous review.
The origins of the shiny, glossy coating that makes hard candy so appealing is actually pretty unappealing. It all begins with the bug Kerria lacca, found in the warm forests of India and Thailand. The bug secretes a sticky substance that coats the branches of trees where it lives. The gross part? That sticky stuff it “secretes” is actually excrement. Yep, that’s right: It’s bug poop. But it gets worse. Those secretions are scraped off the trees, along with the bark and any bugs left behind. Everything is heated until it liquefies, then the solid matter (read: bug carcasses and bark) is filtered out and the liquid is sold as shellac or hardened into disks sometimes called “confectioner’s glaze.” But no matter what you call it, it still came out of a bug’s rear end. Ew.
The words “enriched” and “fortified” sound so wholesome, but white flour is anything but that. It’s made by stripping the wheat berry of the germ and the bran, where all of the fiber and nutrients are. Then it’s refined within an inch of its life until it becomes a soft, fluffy powder. Because this process is so harsh (bleaching is just one of the 20 steps needed to make enriched white flour), some of the removed nutrients are added back into the product. The trouble is, those nutrients aren’t wholesome, either; they’re synthetic and often toxic. The form of iron added, for example, is metallic. Not only is it almost impossible for the body to absorb, it’s contained in such amounts that in one test video, generic corn flake cereal is pulled by a magnet and shards of metal can be seen in the food under a microscope.
Ammonia is a chemical that is both naturally and artificially created. In fact, it’s produced by all mammals as part of the body’s metabolism process. But that doesn’t mean we should be consuming it — yet it’s used in gaseous form “to kill germs in low-grade fatty beef trimmings,” according to Health.com, and is found in ground beef. The FDA believes the amount used isn’t likely to harm humans, but bear this in mind: Ammonia “is a corrosive substance,” according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, and the most toxic effects occur when you make direct contact with ammonia in high amounts, which would cause burns in your mouth, throat and stomach.
I’m not going to sugar-coat this one: The next ingredient on the list also comes from an animal’s butt. “Castoreum is an anal secretion beavers use to mark their territories,” according to Business Insider. “It also happens to smell like vanilla.” And if that doesn’t gross you out, this will: “Because of its close proximity to the anal glands, the substance often contains anal secretions and urine.” Castoreum is most commonly used in perfumes, but it’s also been used as a food additive for more than 80 years. But you won’t read “castoreum” on any food labels; because it is technically a “natural substance,” manufacturers get to call it “natural flavoring.”
Just what is it that gives liquid smoke that earthy, smoky flavor? It’s burnt sawdust. No, really. “Liquid smoke is made by burning sawdust and capturing the components in either water or a vegetable oil,” according to Health.com. “The resulting product can be purchased and added to sauces and other foods to give it that — yes — smoky flavor.” You can buy liquid smoke in a bottle and use it to flavor home-cooked foods, but if you buy barbecue products like baked beans, hot dogs, bacon or beef jerky, you’re likely to be consuming liquid smoke.
Carmine or cochineal extract
Bugs aren’t only used for shine; they’re also used for color. Carmine, which is also listed as cochineal extract or natural red 4, is a colorant that’s made from the cochineal bug. “The insects are sun-dried, crushed and dunked in an acidic alcohol solution to produce carminic acid, the pigment that eventually becomes carmine or cochineal extract, depending on processing,” according to Live Science. “About 70,000 insects are needed to produce a pound of dye.” The Aztecs began using cochineal dye centuries ago in their textiles, and today the coloring can be found in cosmetics as well as food. In addition to being just plain nasty, it can produce dangerous allergic reactions in some consumers — the reason you’ll find this ingredient listed and not hidden as a “natural substance.”