Many among us had to read Upton Sinclair’s 1906 denunciation of the Chicago meatpacking industry, The Jungle (fewer among us chose to read it — nice to meet you, too.) The book, which exposed nauseating information about the way our most infectious comestibles were packaged, spurred the creation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) three months after its publication. Since then, the Administration has been preserving public health by assuring that foods are safe, wholesome, sanitary, and properly labeled (except for meat from livestock, poultry, and some egg products, all under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.)
The FDA keeps a document called the “Defect Levels Handbook,” which details “[the] levels of natural or unavoidable defects in foods that present no health hazards for humans.” In other words, the number of mites that can inoffensively be packaged into frozen broccoli, or the number of insect heads into fig paste.
The Department, whose mission it is to keep its citizens safe, deems these products innocuous. Out of both ignorance and trust, we are incapable of contradicting it. However, we are capable of quoting Cleveland Brown, looking at the facts and saying: “Oh… that’s nasty.”
If you’re curious, read on, and find out the 11 secretly grossest common foods.
11. Frozen Asparagus – Beetle Eggs
Asparagus can do more than just make your pee smell funny (if it’s frozen asparagus, does it make your yellow snow smell funny?) – it can also feed you yummy-licious beetle eggs. According to the Handbook, excess occurs when “10% by count of spears or pieces are infested with 6 or more attached asparagus beetle eggs and/or sacs.”
In other words, if there are 100 sticks, 1 in 10 sticks has 6 beetle eggs on it (60 beetle eggs), then there are too many. 59 beetle eggs? No problemo! Keep on chompin’. Although the 1 extra egg probably makes no difference in terms of health, 1 egg AT ALL is still hella nasty.
10. Apple butter – Bugs
We are dearly sorry if you just returned home from your local farmer’s market/fruit stand/Whole Foods with a jar of apple butter you were excited to spread on toast, but this is something that you might still want to know: aside from mites, aphids, thrips, or scale insects, apple butter manufacturers are allowed 5 or less whole or equivalent insects into every one hundred grams of apple butter. Since the average jar of the spread is about 250 mL (250 grams), then that means each could contain up to 12 and a half insects.
9. Canned Beets – Rot
Canned beets are allowed to have up to 5% of pieces containing dry rot, a type of spoilage caused by certain species of fungi. If it exceeds 5%, the canned beets become adulterated, meaning tainted because another substances has been added. (Yes, “adulterated” means “rendered bad,” even though the ‘nastiest’ version of a movie is typically called “unadulterated.”) So if you were planning on using some colorful canned beets for your weekly borscht & pierogis, maybe prepare yourself for it to be INVOLUNTARY CREAM OF MUSHROOM. Or at least for it to be “Borscht and Memories of Mushroom Ragout.”
8. Maraschino Cherries – Maggots
Ever forgotten to take the trash out in July? Ever opened your trash and seen a half-eaten steak has come alive with new diners? We haven’t, but sometimes it happens to people on the internet. Those happy eaters in the trash are called maggots, and they are the charmingly immature incarnation of the housefly. They revel in rot. So how gross is it that maraschino cherries are only considered adulterated when 5 in 100 have been rejected for having maggots? Super, super, super disgusting and gross. Do yourself a favor, next time you order a milkshake in the 1940s, bring your own cherry from the orchard.
7. Cinnamon – Rodent Hairs
Did you do the cinnamon challenge? If so, congratulations, you’re officially a dunce! Also you’re officially the owner of a bellyful of rodent fur. Mmm! That’s right: the FDA handbook allows an average of 11 or fewer rodent hairs per 50 grams of cinnamon. Since a tablespoon is roughly 16 grams, that means that each person the cinnamon challenge could have consumed up to three and a half rodent hairs. That’s not an altogether offensive amount of rodent hair, but seeing how absolutely disgusting (and surprisingly large and heavy) rats can be, we’d prefer the number be zero.
6. Ginger – Mammalia Excreta
Speaking of exotic spices, the FDA allows no more than 3 milligrams of mammalia excreta per pound of ginger. If you are not a latinist, ‘mammalia’ refers to mammals and ‘excreta’ refers to dung, as in “excrement.” In every pound of ginger manufacturers are allowed three milligrams of that sweet, smelly cow poop.
Again, three milligrams is doable, and just because they are allowed up to three grams it does not mean that every manufacturer is carefully adding just that very amount per pound of ginger. But just the fact that it happened enough for someone to have to make a rule about it…
5. Macaroni and Cheese – Insect Fragments
Insects are crafty opportunists and, not only that, they’re also small. It makes sense that it would be difficult to keep insects out of any sort of food manufacturing. And even though we cut the makers of KD some mac, it’s pretty sickening that there are insect parts in boxes of macaroni and cheese.
The cutoff is 225 insect fragments per 225 grams. If there is more than that in over 6 sub-samples, the batch is tainted. Once again, the number is pretty much arbitrary (are insects even bad for you? Some people consider chocolate covered ants a delicacy…), but gross still.
4. Apricot, pear, or pear nectar – Mold
Nectar is too moldy when there is an average mold count of 12% or more. How gross is that? We feel as though there is some ulterior math to be done, because something that is 12% moldy is clearly like moldy through and through (like covered in visible mold.) It would be clumpy instead of velvety as nectar should be. That said, overly sweet summer fruit tends to get moldy very quickly. There is bound to be some mold in non-fresh products made from them. But 12% mold or less seems to us like it would be overwhelmed with the stuff.
3. Raisins – Sand
The reason there is sand in products is generally to keep things from sticking together. It’s in many things, such as salts, soups, and coffee creamer to keep it from clumping. It is probably used for the same purpose in raisins, which still sometimes turn into a raisin-king inside those little red Sun-Maid boxes of yesteryear’s grade school lunches. Swallowing sand at the beach is inevitable and essentially harmless. But the thought of chowing down on kitty litter, albeit clean and in trace amounts, is enough to make a person pick Bran Flakes over Raisin Bran.
2. Canned Tomatoes – Fly Eggs and Maggots
As per the handbook, there can be an “average of 10 or more fly eggs per 500 grams OR 5 or more fly eggs and 1 or more maggots per 500 grams OR 2 or more maggots per 500 grams” of canned tomatoes. Did anyone else not get that? Did anyone else only get that there are occasionally maggots in canned tomatoes? For some reason, fly eggs and maggots are the most offensive of all invisible culprits. Pulverized insects are completely acceptable when compared to wriggling and jiggling maggots in mamma’s spaghetti.
1. Wheat – Rodent Pellets
Once again, as per the handbook, there can be an “average of 9 mg or more rodent excreta pellets and/or pellet fragments per kilogram [of wheat.]” A kilogram comes out to about two and a half pounds. So there must be less than 9mg of rodent excreta per two-and-a-half-pounds of wheat.
That seems fine enough, but it makes one wonder: “How did the pellets get there? Were rodents wandering through my wheat?” and, since rodents transmit a litany of diseases, ”Will I die from eating this gluten?!”
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