I am an avid reader of food labels. All kinds of secret, and not-so-secret, ingredients are often hidden in our foods. After being diagnosed with celiacs at age 48, I learned that gluten is often “hidden” in other ingredients and not required to be listed on food labels. A whole lot of other “foods” are hidden as well!
In honor of April Fools’ Day, I thought we’d take a look at a few ingredients you may have ingested today. “Natural flavors” and “natural flavorings” may be more natural than you thought!
Lanolin is often used as a softening agent in cosmetics. It comes from the sebaceous glands of wool animals. It’s often used in chewing gum.
Sugar doesn’t contain any animal ingredients, but most companies use bone char (think of it as animal charcoal) in filters to reduce the color in sugar. Thankfully, animal bone ash is regulated. It can come only from cattle that have died from natural causes. Pakistan, Nigeria, Brazil, India, and Morocco are the main supplies of this fine filtering agent.
Next time you plan on using a package for flavoring tacos or chili, take a look at the ingredients listed on the back. Way down the list you’ll find silicon dioxide. It’s also known as silica. Silicon dioxide is the main chemical compound in sand. It’s also a favorite anti-caking agent. It’s everything from processed meat, spice powders, instant soups and sauces, snack bars, supplements, pharmaceutical drug tablets and more. It’s OK. The FDA only allows 2% of product weight to include silicon dioxide.
Sodium borate is a crystalline compound of boric acid. It’s more commonly known by its commercial name borax. Borax keeps mice, bugs, ants and mold away. It is used as a multipurpose cleaner, fire retardant, fungicide, herbicide and as a food preservative. Borax is banned as a food additive (E285) in the United States, but it is allowed in imported caviar.
Gelatin is in everything! It’s flavorless and translucent substance (Jell-O anyone?) used as a stabilizer, texture enhancer, or thickening agent in foods. The active element of gelatin is the collagen obtained from various animal parts. The most abundant sources of gelatin are pig skin, bovine hide, and pork and cattle bones. Yum.
Shellac is a natural product – obtained by refining the secretions of the Kerria lacca insects. Native to South-East Asia, the insects reside in colonies of thousands on trees such as Kusum, Ficus, Palas, and Ber. It takes approximately 300,000 lac bugs to produce a one-kilogram sack of shellac. Yes, it’s used in furniture and floor waxes. It’s also used in coating fruits and vegetables, as well candies, snacks, and pastries, to make them look fresher and more appealing.
Starbucks stopped using carmine as a colorant in their products (e.g. Strawberry Banana Smoothie) in 2012 as a result of consumer concerns. Carmine is obtained from female cochineal insects. After the bugs are killed by immersion in hot water, or exposure to heat, and then dried, their abdomen (it contains the most carmine) is extracted and cooked at high temperatures. The cochineal extract is added to everything from meat to marinades, juices, jams, gelatins and candies, baked goods, toppings, icings, and dairy products. Yep. Red bug guts.
L-cysteine is a common flavor enhancer and dough conditioner used in bakery products, like pizza, crackers, bagels, bread, croissants and donuts. While some L-cysteine is chemically synthesized in labs, most manufacturers use human hair or duck feathers. Remember when McDonald’s and grocers were accused of using “pink slime” in their hamburger meat? You can rest assured. McDonald’s confirmed that it uses L-cysteine made only from duck feathers, so there’s no human hair to worry about.
I know you have noticed cellulose (aka powdered cellulose, microcrystalline cellulose, or cellulose gum) in foods! manufacturers add cellulose to their products because it acts as an extender, reducing breakage and providing structure. Food producers from all over the world save almost 30% in ingredient costs by going for cellulose as a filler or thickener. Powdered cellulose can replace as much as 50% of the fat in some biscuits, cakes and cookies – hence “high fiber” or “fat reduced” labels can be used. Next time you drive through KFC, Taco Bell or crack open a package of Sara Lee remember you are really eating bamboo or cotton-based plant matter.
The two best secret ingredients are last!
The same substance that beavers naturally secrete to mark their territories, is an especially useful ingredient in raspberry and vanilla-flavored foods, like ice cream, candies, syrups, pastries, and cigarettes. Castoreum is a bitter, strongly odoriferous secretion, produced by the beaver’s sacs, located by the anal glands. The gross part is that castoreum doesn’t have to be listed on the label by its name because it is considered a natural flavor. Good thing. No one would willing eat beaver-butt, even if it does taste like raspberries and vanilla.
Finally, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration condones a certain percentage of natural contaminants in the food supply chain. That means we are eating some mold, maggots, and insect or rodent poo. Reading Chapter 5: Foods, Colors, and Cosmetics on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s site will reduce your appetite! Here’s a sampling of allowable filth (their word!) on just a few items:
- Berries: average mold count is 60% or more; average of 4 or more larvae per 500 g; 10 or more whole insects or equivalent per 500 g
- Canned and dried mushrooms: 20 or more maggots of any size / 100g; 75 mites / 100g
- Tomato paste: 30 or more fly eggs / 100g; 15 or more fly eggs and 1 or more maggots / 100g; 2 or more maggots /100g in a minimum of 12 subsamples
Other cultures show us that there are true benefits to eating insects, but there’s a huge difference between eating processed remnants of bugs and rats, and consuming healthy and edible insects that are rich in proteins, minerals and vitamins.