In the world of food, few things are what they seem to be. What we imagine is a simple tasty bite can actually turn out to contain dozens of ingredients. If you read food labels regularly, you’ve surely come across unfamiliar and sometimes unpronounceable substances hiding in your favorite products—soy lecithin, carageenan, xanthan gum, and the ever-present “natural flavors.” Pop quiz: what is polysorbate 80, and why is it in your food?
Don’t know? Didn’t think so. Food manufacturers rely on the all-powerful rule of “trade secrets” to resist revealing the formulations of their products, and they rely on customers to not know what many ingredients really are or what they do. And with good reason—if consumers knew what was lurking in many of the products they buy and consume every day, they’d surely think again.
Creepy-Crawly Critter Coloring
Can you resist the allure of a red Popsicle on a summer day? You might be able to if you knew where that red color comes from. Carmine, also called cochineal, is a red dye that’s used in hundreds of food products—from candy to soda to yogurt and even cosmetics—and it’s derived from the crushed skeletons of the cochineal beetle. The cochineal is a scale insect that lives on the flat leaves of cacti; the bodies of females contain carminic acid, which has been used to dye food and fabrics for hundreds of years. Although the FDA regards carmine as “generally safe,” a few allergic reactions have been attributed to its consumption. Although it’s considered ubiquitous, few food manufacturers acknowledge that they use the dye, drawing the ire of customers who observe vegetarian, Muslim, or Jewish dietary restrictions.
Reason #473,829 to Quit Smoking
As if smoking weren’t bad enough, imagine drawing each puff of smoke through a filter that’s been treated with pig hemoglobin. That’s right—pig’s blood. In 2010, Dutch research into the industrial uses of pigs found that one way cigarette manufacturers increase the efficacy of their filters is by treating them with a protein derived from pig blood. The manufacturers, for their part, insist that the methods and ingredients used to treat cigarettes during the manufacturing process don’t affect the finished product, but again, Muslim and Jewish smokers would probably prefer knowing that their smokes were haram or traif. Of course, even though tobacco companies are now required to disclose the ingredients in their cigarettes, they still manage to obfuscate the truth by using catchall phrases like “processing aids,” so many smokers are none the wiser about whether their preferred brand is treated with this troubling additive.
A Jell-O Surprise
The basic ingredient in Jell-O is gelatin. The basic ingredient in gelatin is collagen. Where does the collagen come from? Animal connective tissue—usually the hooves, bones, and tendons of horses, pigs, and cows. The animal parts are treated to make the gelatin, which increases viscosity and helps food products keep their shape and texture. Besides appearing in desserts, it’s in many candies, such as Peeps, marshmallows, and Gummi bears, as well as dairy products like whipped cream and cream cheese. It’s even used sometimes in low-fat or fat-free food products to simulate the texture and mouthfeel of fat. Kosher and Hindu-friendly versions of gelatin are available, as are substitutions like agar agar, which appease vegetarians, but most commercial food products are made with the (cheaper and more readily available) real thing.
Candy-coated in What?
In the forests of Southeast Asia, female lacca insects secrete a sticky, reddish resin onto the trees they colonize. Workers harvest the resin, turning it into products like wood varnish, leather dye, and … candy coating. The processed form of lacca resin is shellac, a product known for its anti-moisture preservative powers and used to create the shiny, hard shell of many candies. This glazing agent, also called confectioners’ glaze, is sometimes used on pills to make them easier to swallow. And liquid shellac is often sprayed onto vegetables and fruits to protect them from moisture and insects during transfer to supermarkets.
More Bounce per Ounce
One big problem for manufacturers of processed bread products is figuring out how to keep them fresh and moist. Many large producers resort to an amino acid additive called L-cysteine to keep baked goods soft in transit, and the best raw material to provide this handy substance is human hair, which can contain up to 20 percent cysteine by weight. Most of the hair used in the production of L-cys comes from India, but those who are concerned about human rights (not to mention eating hair) will be glad to know that there’s another way to get it: poultry feathers.
To produce foods and get them to market as fresh and cheaply as possible, processors have come to rely on a bevy of chemical emulsifiers, stabilizers, texturizers, preservatives, and flavorings. Just about every food product that comes with a label is bound to contain an ingredient or two with unusual or unappetizing origins. The best way to avoid seasoning your food with chemicals is to buy food without labels—fresh vegetables, meats, and raw ingredients—and cook everything yourself. The labor may seem like a chore, but if the payoff is food free of bugs, hair, and horse hooves, wouldn’t you say it’s worth it?