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The 10 Scariest Ingredients in Processed Food

We all know that processed foods generally contain a jumble of unpronounceable ingredients, but what purpose do these ingredients serve, exactly, and where do they come from? We did some investigating and found that most of these 17-letter mystery substances (azodicarbonamide, butylated hydroxytoluene, propylene glycol alginate, and the like) are used to give packaged foods certain characteristics of texture, flavor, color and durability — to be fluffier, foamier, softer, crunchier, creamier, tangier, less crumbly, more jelly-like, easier to melt, and of course, longer-lasting.

On its own, this may not sound very spooky. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that some of these ingredients are also used to make fireworks, fuel cells, and anti-freeze; others come from sources as bizarre as human hair, animal bones and beaver butts.

Yep, beaver butts.

Read this Halloween post and it may seem that you have a real haunted house in your own kitchen cabinet. But the purpose of this post isn’t to freak you out: While consuming these ingredients regularly in large amounts isn’t a good idea, eating them occasionally in all likelihood won’t hurt you. What we’re really trying to do here is illustrate how removed so many of us have become from the sources of our own sustenance — how little we really know about how packaged food is made, and in turn, what the true value is of eating simple, whole foods grown close to home.

Without further delay, the 10 scariest ingredients in processed foods:

 

  • Castoreum 1 of 10
    Beaver

    We might as well start with beaver butts.  The food additive castoreum, which is used to boost flavor in raspberry candies, vanilla cupcakes, strawberry ice cream and other flavored confections, is actually a beaver secretion. A secretion released from the beaver's anal gland. Straight truth. To make things even more bizarre, the FDA has approved this additive as a source of "natural flavoring."

  • Polydimethylsiloxane 2 of 10
    Silicone breast implants

    Used as part of the filler in some processed "meat" products like Chicken McNuggets, which are only partially made of actual chicken, polydimethylsiloxane (a.k.a. PDMS) is also a chemical used in Silly Putty and the silicone filling of breast implants.

  • Carmine 3 of 10
    Carmine

    If you see "Natural Red #4" listed among ingredients on your food package, it's code for boiled beetles. "These dried insects are boiled in water to extract the carminic acid they contain," reported the Science Channel. "Typically, due to the fantastic red hue the resulting potion gives off, this ingredient is used to artificially dye foods red, purple and pink." Starbucks used the dye in frappucinos until they discontinued it last year when customers got grossed out. Still, it's widely added to food products such as yogurt, candies, and ruby-red juices. This process has been going on for millennia it hardly represents a modern health threat but it's bizarro nevertheless.

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

  • Propylene glycol 4 of 10
    Antifreeze

    This page on Dow Chemical's articulates, unwittingly, just how spooky propylene glycol really is. Among the list of applications for this food additive, Dow boasts that it can be used as a "humectant and stabilizer in prepared fruits, vegetables and bakery goods" while it can also be used as a "plasticizer… for cork seals" and a "solvent for printing inks" and an "equipment cleaner." The website does not mention another common application of propylene glycol: a key ingredient in anti-freeze.

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

  • Gelatin 5 of 10
    Horse

    Remember that creepy legend you heard as a kid that there were ground-up horses hooves in your Jell-O? Well, there was some truth in it. Hooves — no, but bones — yes. Gelatin is extracted from the collagen in animal skin and bones, and often used in cosmetics and food products like marshmallows, gummy bears, and yogurts. And of course, Jell-O.

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

  • Sodium Nitrate 6 of 10
    Fire works

    Sodium nitrate is commonly used as an oxidizer to make fireworks. It's also in products like bacon, hot dogs and deli meats to prevent the growth of bacteria that can cause lethal botulism in humans. The downside is that this meat preservative has also been linked to cancer. That's why there's been the recent trend in "nitrate free" labels on some meat products. But the additive is still in common use.

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

  • Phosphoric Acid 7 of 10
    Rust

    This cheap acidifier gives your Diet Coke, Dr. Pepper, Mellow Yellow (and most other sodas) that sour tangy taste. It's also used to make fuel cells, and does wonders to remove rust from metal. Studies have shown that this potent substance can erode the calcium density in bones and damage kidney function.

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

  • Azodicarbonamide 8 of 10
    Styrofoam Cup

    This unpronounceable ingredient is commonly used to bleach flour for white breads and fast-food hamburger buns. It's also used to manufacture pleather, Styrofoam, and other foamed plastics.

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

  • Ammonium sulfate 9 of 10
    Flame Retardant

    Another commercial bread additive, ammonium sulfate provides nitrogen to activate the yeast. There are other ways to activate yeast, but this method is cheap and fast and makes the bread texture more uniform. It's also a common ingredient in agricultural fertilizer and flame retardants — two good reasons to visit your local baker, or bake your own, rather than getting the plastic-bag stuff.

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

  • L-Cysteine 10 of 10
    Hair

    Last but not least: The amino acid L-Cysteine extends shelf-life in processed foods, mostly bread products, and is commonly used at fast food chains. It can be extracted from duck and chicken feathers, but another sources is human hair. The Guardian reported that "most of the hair used to make L-Cysteine comes from China, where it's gathered from barbershops and hair salons." 

    Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

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