Do you know what really goes into your food?
It’s one thing to read food labels, but it’s quite another to understand what exactly those ingredients mean — and something else entirely to know what’s used in the process of making that food that doesn’t make it to the food label.
The Environmental Working Group is leading the charge on educating consumers about hazardous food additives, regularly publishing “The Dirty Dozen,” a list of 12 additives you should avoid and why. (You can read all about it HERE.)The dangers of such additives include hormone disruptions, developmental delays, behavioral disorders, and a host of tumors and cancers. The EWG points out that although these additives have been given the green light by the United States Food and Drug Administration, the very fact that their hazards are well-known yet allowed to be sold in our food shines a light on “some of the worst failures of the regulatory system.”
All health hazards aside, some of these additives are just plain gross. From beaver butts to bug poop, here are eight disgusting things hidden in the food you eat and the products you buy every day.
BHT (Butylated Hydroxytoluene)
A lot of products boast that they’re loaded with antioxidants. But don’t be fooled — not all of those antioxidants are good for you. BHT is an additive used to prevent oxidation and can be found in hundreds of foods, cosmetics and packaging. It’s also used in jet fuels, rubber, petroleum products, transformer oil, wax packaging and embalming fluid. BHT is recognized as safe by the FDA because it’s used in consumer products in very small amounts; however, what’s not taken into consideration is the huge range of foods and products that contain BHT, such as cereal, chewing gum, potato chips, butter, meat patties, moisturizers and more. Over the course of a week or even a day, there’s no telling how much is consumed and absorbed. Why is this a problem? It’s been identified as a carcinogen and endocrine disruptor and denounced by the Environmental Working Group and the Center for Science in the Public Interest, among others.
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: bark and bug carcasses) 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 don’t be fooled — white flour is anything but. In fact, there’s nothing even “whole” about it. White flour is 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. But 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 in, for example, is metallic. Not only is it difficult for the body to absorb, it’s contained in such amounts that in one test video, little shards of metal can be seen under a microscope and generic corn flake cereal can be pulled by a magnet.
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.”
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.
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.” If you buy barbecue products like baked beans, hot dogs, bacon or beef jerky, you’re likely to be consuming liquid smoke.
Note: This article originally appeared on FamilyShare.com. All content was written by me.