Gross Food Ingredients You May Not Know You’re Eating

Rachel Jones

When you buy a packaged food item there is a list of ingredients somewhere on the packaging, so that you have an idea about what is in the food you are eating. However, what you may sometimes not able to see from this list is the origin or qualities of these ingredients. Prepare to be disgusted by some of the gross ingredients commonly found in foods you may eat every day.


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Skatole is added to perfumes and cigarettes, and is used in small concentrations to enhance strawberry flavourings in ice cream. In these concentrations it has a floral scent. Skatole is naturally found in much higher concentrations in mammalian faeces, which owes much of its odour to the compound, and is mildly toxic. The US military has even patented its use as a non-lethal weapon due to its offensive smell.

L-Cysteine is used in to commercially produced breads as a dough conditioner. This amino acid is readily sourced by breaking down mammalian hair or feathers. Hog hair, duck feathers or even human hair may be used. There is some debate between sources, but it has been suggested that human hair could be the predominant origin of the L-cysteine added to our shop-bought breads. Human hair may be preferred as a larger proportion of the amino acids that build the proteins in the hair are L-cysteine.  

Strawberry and raspberry flavourings can be enhanced by castoreum, which is secreted from castor sacs, a type of scent gland near to the anus of beavers. It is written on ingredient lists as a natural flavouring, meaning that it can be present in any strawberry-flavoured food.

Xanthomonas campestris is a bacterium that produces xanthan gum. Xanthan gum is used as a stabiliser in many foods, and is popular due to its ability to replace gluten in home baking. Xanthomonas campestris is usually found in nature as black rot on vegetables, which can destroy entire crops including broccoli, cauliflower and kale. Thankfully, the slimy black rot is produced under very different conditions to xanthan gum used in food, and the gum is thoroughly purified.

Sorbitol is a valuable sweetener because it is less calorific than the average carbohydrate. If you consume too much sorbitol, it can cause flatulence, abdominal pain and potentially severe diarrhoea. There are health risks associated. A 52kg woman ingested 20g a day, and lost 11kg in 8 months due to diarrhoea. Another patient who was consuming 30g a day had to be hospitalised because of the side effects of the sweetener.

Meat in the supermarket may be packaged with small amounts of carbon monoxide, making it look redder, and so fresher. Carbon monoxide is probably best known for the fatal consequences of carbon monoxide leaks in homes, but is safe in these small quantities. There has been concern by worried consumers that this could mask meat spoilage, however the sell-by-date on the meat should always keep the meat from being sold after it has spoiled, and packaging should always state that the colour of the meat is not indicative of freshness.  

Chewing gum bases are ‘standardised’, so the ingredients list on gum packaging do not have to disclose what constitutes the base. Because of this, when lanolin is added to soften the gum base, it won’t be listed. Lanolin is a thick, waxy, light yellow grease taken from sheep wool by pressure or chemical separation, and makes up 5-25% of the weight of freshly-shorn wool.

Many British beers owe their clarity to isinglass, which is added to ‘fine’ the drink by removing yeast from, which otherwise makes it cloudy. Isinglass is made from the dried swim bladders of fish, an organ which controls the depth the fish swims at without the fish having to swim up and down in the water. The collagen proteins in isinglass form a net to collect the yeast particles in the beer.

This is only a few highlights of the many gross things we eat in everyday foods. Honourable mentions have to be given to spraying bacteria-killing viruses onto deli meats, using charred bone as a filter during sugar production, and rennet to convert milk into cheese. It is important to remember that in the UK, many steps are taken to purify and clean ingredients from gross places. If you have no ethical disagreements with how they are obtained, there really shouldn’t be anything harmful or unclean in the food you eat.

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