Eating gross things is fascinating when other people do it. It’s why kids pay a dollar to get a weird kid to eat bugs on the playground and the reason NBC has been able to produce 150 episodes of Fear Factor. But when you’re the one eating the gross stuff, it’s not as fun. And there are a lot of disgusting and weird things out there that crop up in our everyday food.
Some of them just feel kind of off-putting, but in the grand scheme of things aren’t that big of a deal. I know how cheese is made and I’m still going to eat five pounds of it if you put it in front of me. Others just feel plain wrong though, chemicals that shouldn’t be in paint, or food that’s not fresh being made to look fresh. Here are 20 food facts that will make you think twice next time you’re at the grocery store.
JELLY BEANS ARE COVERED IN SHELLAC (WHICH IS MADE FROM BUG EXCRETIONS)
Shellac makes things shiny, and shiny jelly beans are nice, so jelly beans are often coated in shellac. Shellac is also made from the excretions of the female lac insect. It’s not bug poop, exactly, but for the purposes of sensationalism, I’m going to say that it is. You eat bug poop.
THE NUMBER OF INSECTS YOU EAT EVERY YEAR
It’s inevitable that some insects are going to get into your food. Still, when you see in the actual FDA regulations that ten insects and 35 fruit fly eggs per 8 oz. of raisins is totally cool, it turns your stomach a little.
THE ‘NUGGET’ ISN’T A CHICKEN PART
Hot dogs have a reputation for being made from the parts of the cow there’s no way you’d eat (and that’s probably true), but the chicken nugget should be the go-to example of gross meat products. Nuggets are made from “meat slurry,” a liquefied meat product which is as appetizing as it sounds, and are then molded into the familiar shapes we all know. You could say it’s an efficient way of using the whole chicken. You could also say it’s totally gross.
RODENT HAIRS ARE ALLOWED IN YOUR FOOD
Are you enjoying some toast with apple butter right now? You might want to put it down. The FDA allows four rodent hairs per 100 grams. Curry powder, allspice, and ground pepper are also allowed to have more rodent hairs than you’d probably like to eat.
MEAT IS TREATED WITH CARBON MONOXIDE TO MAKE IT LOOK FRESH
When you pick out that nice red steak at the grocery store, you’re choosing it because it looks fresh, but will it taste as fresh? It’s hard to know because a lot of meat is treated with carbon monoxide to keep it from turning color. That doesn’t mean the meat is bad, but it does mean that it’s not as fresh as you’d been led to believe.
1 IN 4 MEAT SAMPLES IS TAINTED WITH DRUG RESISTANT BACTERIA
All food has some bacteria on it, but because of over-reliance on antibiotics in feedlots, livestock have developed a number of drug resistant strains of common diseases like staph infections. What’s disturbing is that, according to NPR, a recent survey of meat in grocery stores found 1 in 4 samples contained these drug resistant bacteria. Learn more on NPR.com
A LOT OF MEAT THAT MAKES IT TO THE SUPERMARKET COMES FROM SICK ANIMALS
As mentioned in the previous slide, the meat industry has become reliant on antibiotics. The reason? Poor diet and living conditions mean that many animals that make it on to our table were really sick. For example, 13 percent of feedlot cattle have abscessed livers.
THERE MIGHT BE BEETLES IN YOUR STRAWBERRY FRAPPUCCINO
I’ve actually paid good money to go to an insect tasting menu event (It was good!), so to me the idea of getting a sticky sweet Strawberry Frappucino is in itself a bit grosser than the fact that it might use beetles in the dye. But I think a lot of people will be off put by the fact that the dye is made from cochineal, which is in fact made from ground up beetles.
CHEESE IS MADE FROM RENNET, WHICH IS MADE FROM CALF STOMACH
Rennet is a group of enzymes for digesting mother’s milk and a crucial part of making cheese. Rennet for cheese making is obtained by slicing up a calf’s stomach, soaking it in whey and wine or vinegar, and then filtering it. Gross.
YOUR GROUND BEEF MAY CONTAIN ‘LEAN MEAT PRODUCT’ OR OTHER FILLERS
You’re probably sick of hearing about “pink slime” and, frankly, so are we, but when you buy ground beef, you’re sort of expecting that it was, y’know, a cut of beef that’s been ground. Ammonia or no, it’s gross to find out that what you’re paying good money for has been cut with meat sludge.
LOTS OF OTHER FOODS HAVE AMMONIA TOO
The beef industry’s response to “pink slime” has been “Look, lots of food has ammonia in it,” which is actually less than comforting, but it’s true that everything from processed cheese to cookies are made with ammonia and have been since 1974, although in many cases the ammonia is in a different form than the cleaning agent we’re most familiar with.
PUBIC HAIRS IN FAST FOOD?
This one is kind of dicey. You see all over the internet (or you do if part of your job is finding out gross things about food) that the average fast food patron consumes 12 pubic hairs in a year, but no one seems to have a source. So maybe it’s not true, but as someone who worked in fast food in high school, let me say that given the people I worked with, their attitudes toward sanitation, and their attitudes toward the customers, it would not surprise me in the least if this were true.
CASTOREUM, A COMMON ADDITIVE, IS MADE FROM BEAVER ANAL GLANDS
Castoreum is an extract that shows up in baked goods, especially as vanilla flavoring. Delicious!
SALMON DYE MAY BE DAMAGING YOUR EYES
Wild salmon gets its distinctive pink color from its krill-based diet. Farm raised salmon, without access to krill, is not actually pink—rather, it’s gray. Since no one wants to eat gray salmon, fisheries give the salmon a color boost by using artificial dyes in their feed. One such chemical, Canthaxanthin, has been linked to retinal damage in humans. Dyed salmon should be labeled as such in stores, but this law is poorly enforced. Ask your fishmonger to be sure.
COMMON FOOD DYES MAY ADVERSELY AFFECT KIDS
Common dyes, like Red No. 3, have been linked to hyperactivity in some children, though more conclusive testing is needed.
THERE’S A LOT MORE THAN BEEF, OR PINK SLIME, IN SCHOOL BURGERS
It turns out that the addition of pink slime isn’t the only way school burgers are modified. A recent NPR study turned up 26 ingredients in the Fairfax County school burgers. One of those ingredients is meat, which is good, but they also contain the more worrisome ones like disodium inosinate, which is a close relative of MSG.
More on the 26-ingredient school burger from NPR
YOUR BREAD MAY CONTAIN AN INGREDIENT DERIVED FROM HUMAN HAIR
L-cysteine, an amino acid, is a common ingredient used as a processing aid in bread products. The main sources for the manufacture of this additive are human hair and duck feathers. Yum!
More on L-cysteine here
YOUR SALAD DRESSING MIGHT HAVE TITANIUM DIOXIDE IN IT
Titanium dioxide belongs in your paint and sunscreen not your food. Studies have shown that there is a potential link between ingestion and inhalation of titanium dioxide and cancer. Food manufacturers add it to things like salad dressing, creamers, and icing to make them appear whiter.
Update: This piece originally incorrectly stated that titanium dioxide is a heavy metal. It is actually an inorganic compound.
1 CAN OF COCA COLA CONTAINS 10 TEASPOONS OF SUGAR (MORE THAN AN ENTIRE DAY’S RDA)
This list has focused on things we might not know are in our food, and most of them are only vaguely harmful. But sugar pops up in most processed foods, and we know it’s bad for us. Linked to diabetes, obesity, and heart disease, the amount of sugar in processed foods isn’t just gross, it’s making us sick.
HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS OF CHILDREN WORK ON AMERICAN FARMS EVERY DAY
US labor laws exclude family farms, and big agriculture uses this loophole to exploit children for farm labor. Frequently, migrant farm workers face a dangerous and strenuous work environment where they’re exposed to pesticides and harsh working conditions, but it is particularly alarming to know that children are doing much of this work too.
Update: This is not the type of character-building work in which the children of farmers “help out” around the farm, rather, these are largely the children of migrant farm workers who are doing the same dangerous work as their parents, and missing out on school to do so. Over 100 of these children are KILLED in farm-related accidents every year.More On