The vast majority of people throughout human history have put very little thought into where their food comes from and how it is made. After all, it is only in the past few centuries that food manufacturing processes and technology has allowed countries to produce more food than is needed. Additional wealth has also made it possible for individuals to buy food that is not as basic as the population was once used to eating.
However, recent controversies have put the ingredients that go into our foods in the spotlight more than ever. Scandals such as the horse meat in beef products in Europe have made people more aware of how things they don’t consider appetizing can make their way into food and drink products. The increasing popularity of vegetarianism and veganism, in addition to legal requirements, means that companies are now beginning to explain exactly what ingredients are included in their recipes.
Even nutritional labels don’t provide the full picture, though. Companies go to extreme lengths to hide some of the most disgusting items that go into their products, giving them scientific sounding names to disguise what they really are. It should come as no surprise then that there are some truly gross ingredients that are present in food that is eaten every single day by millions. Regardless of the reason they were used, people might think twice about consuming any food containing these revolting parts.
Arsenic is a naturally occurring element that most people know is toxic and probably shouldn’t be consumed. After all, the chemical is capable of poisoning a human being and current estimates put the number of people affected by arsenic poisoning at around 137 million people.
That makes it even more surprising that arsenic is commonly found in all types of food and water. In particular, rice and juice is particularly susceptible to containing small amounts of arsenic, which can occur due to the natural environment producing the element or through human intervention that has introduced inorganic arsenic to the soil. While it is rare for toxic levels of arsenic to contaminate food in developed countries, long term exposure has been linked to a variety of problems, including lung cancer, bladder problems and skin cancer.
14. Silly Putty
Polydimethylsiloxane is a silicon compound that many people will be familiar with simply because it is the main substance that goes into making Silly Putty. Its use is not exclusive to toys though, the properties of polydimethylsiloxane make it a vital part of many other products. These include shampoos, hydraulic fluids, medicine, skin lotion, lubricant, and even as fillers for breast implants. These uses are generally safe for human use as it is both non-toxic and non-flammable, making it an incredibly useful compound.
One of its properties though, as an anti-foaming chemical, has made it desirable by fast food companies around the world. When added to cooking oil, it effectively stops it from bubbling up as much, reducing the risk of oil splatter. This helps to prevent burns and spillages in the cooking area of restaurants but means that fries and chicken nuggets often contain the substance.
Shellac is a little known resin substance that is usually used to varnish wood and give it a shiny appearance. As a wood finish, companies will often utilize it to shine furniture and guitars. This is because it acts as a high-gloss varnish that is difficult to stain and prevents water damage by sealing the material it coats. These properties have also made it a useful material in the food industry.
Many different types of sweets, from gummy bears and jelly beans to Skittles, all use the resin as a coating to add extra shine. While this isn’t unusual by itself, it is where the resin comes from that makes it so gross. The chemical is secreted by the female lac bug and processed in ethanol to create the liquid resin. Effectively, workers collect the excrement of the insect by scarping it from trees and plants.
12. Coal Tar
Unless you eat a diet that consists completely of natural and organic foods, then it is likely that you will come across various different types of artificial coloring during your day. Coloring is added to almost every single food and drink on the market, often to make it more appealing to the customer but also sometimes as a way of matching it with a brand. The widespread use of artificial colors is starting to decline slightly due to pressure from health campaigners who argue that many might be dangerous, though they still play an important role in the food industry.
Perhaps the most discussed are those dyes that use coal tar. Various different synthetic dyes use tar distilled from coal to create a wide range of colors. However, some have questioned whether this is safe as some evidence suggests that it can lead to allergic reactions, skin irritation and even ADHD.
Several years ago, campaigners discovered that ammonia was being used to treat beef burgers in a number of fast food restaurants, leading to outrage that the chemical was present in food without customers being fully informed. Ammonia is a colorless gas that is probably most famous for its strong smell. Usually, it is used as fertilizer and for cleaning products, though only in small amounts because of the fact that ammonia is both toxic and caustic.
From the 1960s, the FDA recognized ammonia has a safe substance to use in food as long as levels were below a certain threshold. It is present in baked goods as a leavening agent and can help to control the acid levels in foods such as cheese. Companies also use it with meats like beef as an antimicrobial agent, as it can stop bacteria from spreading.
If you have ever wondered how food manufacturers manage to dye the snacks they produce red, the answer is probably not something that you would have wanted to hear. The truth of the matter is that the vast majority of red food coloring is made from a substance known as cochineal. Companies use it to make everything from candy to meat, jam, and even alcohol.
This ingredient is created by crushing the females of a species of insect known as cochineal, with more than 70,000 individual bugs needed to produce just a single pound of dye. Aztecs living in South America first discovered the unique properties of the insect dye and it soon spread to European settlers in the 15th century, though it was originally used mainly in coloring clothing rather than food.
9. Human Hair
Very occasionally, a person might find a hair in the food. It might have dropped from their own head while eating the meal or may have been introduced during the cooking process if the chefs did not take proper precautions. While unpleasant, it is a rare enough occurrence that most people simply don’t worry about it.
Unfortunately, this isn’t the only time that food can contain human hair, though. The amino acid known as L-Cysteine is widely used in the food industry thanks to the fact that it can significantly preserve the shelf life of products, particularly bread and dough products. While it can be found in duck and chicken feathers, the vast majority of L-Cysteine that goes into food comes directly from human hair that is collected and processed in China. An easy way to avoid eating human hair in your bread is to either buy it fresh from a baker or purchase wholemeal bread instead.
Seaweed has been used as an ingredient in all types of things throughout human history. In fact, it has been a hugely important crop in certain parts of the world for almost 3,000 years and is now used in around $6 billion worth of products. This is despite the fact that many people do not even understand completely what it is. Seaweed isn’t technically a plant at all, despite its rather confusing name, but rather algae.
While many parts of Asia eat seaweed as part of meals, it is the jelly-like extract known as agar that has become a hugely important ingredient in all kinds of foods as it can act as a gelatin substitute and help thicken mixtures. These properties also mean that seaweed is useful in other products as a thickening agent, with companies making use of it in the likes of shampoo, lubricant, soap and lotions.
Propylene glycol, otherwise known as antifreeze, is a chemical that most people would probably never choose to willingly consume. After all, it is not only used in the toxic antifreeze but has also made its way into other products such as cosmetics, medicine and e-cigarettes. Despite this, there are hundreds of different products that contain large amounts of propylene glycol in the United States, although its use in European countries is regulated much more strictly, with only trace amounts allowed in products.
The antifreeze chemical is popular in the food industry as it acts as an effective preservative in consumables. Ice cream, whiskey, coffee, sweeteners, and soda all use it to some degree, while other companies also claim that it acts as a flavoring agent to make products taste better.
Look at the ingredients of most cheeses and you will likely see something called rennet. What most people don’t realize though, is that rennet is actually a substance that is collected from the stomach of calves and other animals. The enzyme is taken directly from the fourth stomach chamber of very young calves after they have been slaughtered and the stomach is cut and sliced into very small pieces. Acid is then added to the solution to liquidize it and make extracting the rennet easier.
Rennet is vital to the cheese making process as the enzymes present within it break down the milk, as it is meant to do to milk suckled from a mother cow. This not only accelerates the curdling process but also separates the milk into curds and whey so that the solid materials can be used to make cheese. While alternative sources of rennet exist, the vast majority of cheeses still contain the calf rennet, making cheese unsuitable for vegetarians.
Lanolin is a wax substance that is made using sheep wool. This has led to it being called names such as wool wax, wool grease and wool wax, though it is always listed in ingredients as lanolin. The secretion helps to ensure that the sheep’s wool is water-resistant and not as exposed to the elements as it otherwise would be.
This property has also made it desirable for human use. Many cosmetic products, including skin care products, lotions and toiletries, all use lanolin as an emollient to make it water-resistant and to soften the skin. As it can soften most materials that it comes into contact with, companies that produce chewing gum also include it in their mixtures so that gum isn’t too hard and so that it keeps its moisture and doesn’t dry out quickly. Other foods also contain trace amounts of lanolin for its high concentration of Vitamin D.
Gelatin is one of the most common ingredients used in food production. It is present in a wide range of different consumables, but can also be found in medicine, cosmetics and even technical items such as cameras and lighting. However, it is probably best known as a gelling agent in cooking. Any jelly-like food is likely to contain significant amounts of gelatin, as it is the best way to thicken food without changing the flavor or other characteristics of the food. Even foods such as cream cheese, yogurt and candy corn use it to some degree.
What is less known about gelatin though, is where it comes from. It is made from a mixture of acid, salt and ground up animal bones, with other waste animal material also used. The bones, skin, muscle, and ligaments are usually taken from cows and pigs.
Like many other rodents and small mammals, beavers produce a liquid substance using special glands that can then be expelled from the body to ward off predators and mark territory. Castoreum is a non-toxic anal secretion that often contains urine and traces of excrement. However, because of the special diet of beavers, the mixture usually has a pleasant smell. When dissolved in an alcohol solution, it even produces a strong vanilla flavor and smell.
This means that it is a useful additive to help make foods taste sweet and give perfumes a pleasing aroma. The past 80 years have seen castoreum used in all types of desserts and snacks, especially to enhance strawberry or raspberry flavoring.
Although some tree bark can be eaten, most people tend not to eat wood if they can avoid it. The truth though, is that avoiding wood in food is much harder than you might have imagined. Wood and paper pulp has become a hugely important ingredient in the food industry over the past few decades and it is now included in a host of products.
Usually listed as cellulose, the powdered wood pulp is added to shredded cheese, cereal and many other foods that are advertised as “reduced fat” on their packaging. The appeal of cellulose is that it doesn’t significantly alter the characteristics of food, that it can thicken and stabilize food, and it is capable of replacing fat content. It is also incredibly cheap, which can help companies reduce their productions costs.
1. Fecal Matter
Due to the fact that most food is produced in large warehouses, it is generally much more exposed to things like insects and rodents than food that is prepared in smaller locations or homes. This means that it is almost impossible for companies to ensure that their products don’t contain any defects. That probably doesn’t make the fact that millions of types of food contain rodent hair and fecal matter any easier to swallow, though.
The FDA recognizes that some defects are unavoidable and actually has acceptable levels of foreign objects that are allowed to be present. This ranges from maggots and insects to rodent hair and excrement. For example, cocoa beans are officially permitted to contain 10 milligrams of mammalian excreta in every pound, while peanut butter can have four individual rodent hairs and two pieces of fecal matter without being considered defective.