I'm Eating What? 12 Gross Things in Your Food
You are what you eat. Vitamins, minerals, protein, fat… and you might also be eating bugs, clones, breast implants, and viruses. If you want to avoid the last half of that list, it's time to learn about all the gross stuff you're eating — and how to avoid it in the future.
Good health requires relatively healthy eating habits. Health insurance companies and consumer agencies alike now advocate consuming nutritious foods as a preventative health care measure. Ignore what you're eating, and you could end up paying the price via higher health insurance premiums and medical bills. (See also: Skip Multivitamins and Eat These These Good Foods Instead)
So forget old "this food is gross" standbys like gelatin and pink slime. This list is chock-full of 12 food additives that you might be eating, but had no idea.
1. Beaver Glands
In the wild, beavers use smelly castor glands (and urine) to mark their territory. In epicurean alchemy, the gland secretions help create tasty vanilla and raspberry flavor compounds.
Castoreum, according to the U.S. Library of Health, is extract from the "dried and macerated castor sac scent glands (and their secretions) from the male or female beaver."
Don't worry, though — this all-natural ingredient is expensive to extract, and is only used in a very small portion of processed foods. It is, however, commonly found in perfume — so if you aren't gulping it down, you may be slathering beaver secretions all over your body instead.
2. Flame Retardant
Brominated vegetable oil, commonly referred to as BVO, contains bromine, an active ingredient in flame retardants.
According to the New York Times, 10% of U.S. soft drinks (including sports drinks) contain BVO. The substance can build up in human body tissue over time, and has been linked to neurological damage, hormonal imbalance, thyroid problems, and more.
In 2013, both Pepsi and Coke announced they were phasing out use of BVO altogether. The substance is already banned for food consumption in the EU and Japan.
(Note: This does not mean you can pour a can of soda over your head and attempt to recreate scenes from "The Princess Bride." It doesn't work like that.)
3. Insect and Rodent "Filth"
You knew this one was coming. Yes, bugs invade our food in all life stages, from eggs to maggots to adults. Rodent hairs, excrement, and undocumented parts play a supporting role.
Thankfully, there are specifics on the levels of bugs and rats we can expect in our food, thanks to the Federal Drug Administration (FDA). The "Food Action Levels" booklet has strict regulations as to the percentage of insect and rodent filth allowed in processed foodstuffs. Below are some examples.
Asparagus, Canned or Frozen
As long as the number is under 10%, spears or pieces can be infested with beetle eggs and/or egg sacs. This defect is categorized as "aesthetic." That's probably not the word most of us had in mind.
Macaroni and Noodle Products
Cannot exceed 4.5 rodent hairs per 225g. The average serving size of dry pasta is 80g to 100g, so just over 1.6 rodent hairs per serving.
Tomato Paste and Sauces
Must contain less than 30 fly eggs per 100g; or less than 15 fly eggs and one maggot per 100g; or less than two maggots per 100g. One serving size of pasta sauce is about one cup or 244g. You do the math.
Sometimes, bugs add beauty to our food. Thank insects for shiny produce aisles and smooth candy shells. (Plus glossy wood furniture and floors.)
Shellac, commonly used for both food and furniture, comes from a resin secreted by lac bugs. Luckily, it's easy to avoid by skipping shelled candy and scrubbing produce thoroughly before eating.
5. A Smorgasbord of Feces
The FDA has a fancy term for animal poop in food — "mammalian excreta." Unfortunately, no phrase is refined enough to make people forget they're eating traces of excrement.
Sources of contamination by mammalian excreta are vast and wide. In some factory farms, when animals are slaughtered, their entrails — filled with feces — spill out along with the meat. Many spices contain traces of mammal excrement as well. Fennel seed and ground ginger, for example, cannot contain more than 3mg of animal feces a pound as per the FDA. Less than that is fine.
6. Spray-On Viruses
Cocktails of viruses are conveniently available as a spray to prevent bacteria from forming on perishable foods. Typically, this is used mostly on ready-to-eat cheese or meat products, but it can be used on goods marked organic.
While it sounds odd, scientists deem the practice, known as "preparation by bacteriophages," a good alternative to antibiotics.
A favorite poison of the Medici, arsenic is added to livestock feed to make pork and chicken meat pink and appealing. Due to water and soil pollution, trace amounts can also be found in juices, seafood, and grains.
While poison in our food sounds scary, most studies don't distinguish between organic and inorganic arsenic — and there are big differences. Low levels of organic arsenic aren't harmful. Inorganic arsenic has been linked to lung cancer in humans.
8. Breast Implant Material
Eating a chicken McNugget is basically like eating part of a breast implant. Or a few ounces of Silly Putty, if you prefer.
Dimethylpolysiloxane, one of the filler ingredients in McNuggets and other forms of fast food, has off-plate uses that range from caulk and hair products to breast implants, adhesives, and Silly Putty. To date, there haven't been any significant studies on safety and human consumption.
The TV show Orphan Black begins in your local supermarket.
Cheese is made with help from an enzyme in rennet, found in the lining of a calf's fourth stomach. Since the demand for calf stomachs apparently exceeds supply, cheese makers have decided to clone them instead.
A common alternative is vegetable rennet, genetically modified from the genes of a cloned calf but somehow made without animal products. Estimates place the percentage of bioengineered cheese (animal or plant based) at around 70%. There are no long-term studies on the effects of eating genetically modified organisms (GMOs), but some people prefer to avoid eating them.
10. Fish Bladders
The next time you admire the amber hue of your favorite craft beer, remember — fish bladders might have made it possible.
Isinglass, widely used in the brewing process to improve the clarity and reduce residue in beer, comes from dried fish bladders. The collagen-like substance, also used to repair parchment paper, isn't known to cause health problems in humans, but vegetarians and vegans may want to avoid it.
11. Bisphenol A (BPA)
The bane of mommy bloggers everywhere (as it should be), Bisphenol A (BPA) has a long list of detrimental effects, running the gamut from cancer to obesity. BPA is so toxic that even small amounts of exposure infiltrate the human body. A study by the Center for Disease Control found that the majority of children under age 6 (90%) have trace amounts of BPA in their bloodstream.
Though the use of BPA in hard plastic goods is falling drastically thanks to negative publicity, the chemical can still be found in beverage containers and food can liners. And it's so potent that leakage into food is a big concern. Detrimental effects of BPA exposure include brain damage, fertility issues, and developmental damage to fetuses and children.
To avoid BPA, steer clear of processed canned goods and plastic food containers. Some organic foods now have a BPA-free label on the packaging — but if that label isn't there, avoid.
12. Titanium Dioxide
Processed foods need to have filthy things added to them in order to look clean. Titanium dioxide, found in white paint, is added to everything from salad dressing to cake icing. Some studies claim it's an inert and relatively harmless ingredient — though researchers readily admit titanium dioxide is possibly carcinogenic to humans.
Check Your Ingredients
These resources can help you figure out what's really in your food:
The Federal Drug Administration (FDA)
The Center for Science in the Public Interest
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What's the worst thing you've ever found in your food? Please share a bite in comments!