Secret Ingredients in Everyday Food

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The chain of production that brings food to our tables involves so many moving parts that it’s practically magic. From growing out of the ground to being processed and packaged, there are so many steps, and therefore so many things that can go wrong. 

That kind of willful ignorance means that so many items can end up in the items we eat, some of them very harmful. But a lot of times, weird things are used in our food that have some kind of benefit. They sound worse than they are, but usually there’s a reason for their existence. Here we take a look at some odd secret ingredients in popular foods. 

10. Viruses In Lunch Meat

It’s no secret that lunch meats are packed full of sodium and fat. It’s a trade off that we make so that we can have delicious sandwiches. Those preservatives also allow that meat to stay good for so long. But what if we told you that many of those deli meats are being sprayed with live viruses?

That seemingly horrifying additive actually is intended to protect us. The Food and Drug Administration has allowed a mixture of six viruses to be sprayed on some lunch meats to protect against Listeria monocytogenes, which is a particularly nasty bacteria that can occur in those foods and causes many cases of food poisoning and even death each year. The good news is that the additive is only harmful to that kind of bacteria, and only attacks those kinds of cells. Meaning, you can still eat fistfuls of that salami, knowing that viruses are protecting you, and indeed already naturally inhabit your digestive tract. 

9. Worcestershire Sauce Is Made With Anchovies

Worcestershire is a unique sauce that many people use to enhance the flavor of beef, pork, or chicken. It has an unmistakable salty earthiness that is the end product of a mixture of some very unorthodox ingredients. Among them are molasses, vinegar, and corn syrup, some things you might not necessarily imagine putting on your steak. 

But one of the ingredients that you probably wouldn’t think to put in a liquidy steak sauce is anchovies. Yes, those tiny little fish that are the joke of pizza toppings are kept in wooden casks, topped with vinegar, and left to ferment for a year and a half. During that time inosinate, a chemical that releases a savory flavor, is released. That singular umami flavor is what makes the sauce so unique, even if it is ground up fermented fish. 

8. So Many Foods Have Sawdust In Them

Have you ever wondered just how your shredded cheeses keep from turning into a stuck-together mess? You could shred your own cheese at home, and at no point is it ever as free-flowing as that bagged cheddar is at the supermarket. The answer, our friends, lies in the trees. 

That’s right. The “anti-caking” agents found in so many foods are derived from cellulose, which is a kind of plant fiber. One of the main sources of plant fiber is ground-up wood pulp. Cellulose is also present in many other items, like bottled condiment sauces and fast food restaurant sandwiches. It would be one thing if it added nutrition, but cellulose passes right through our bodies without being absorbed. Scientists say that we could produce this plant fiber from almost anything other than trees, but that it would cost too much and waste too much good food. So enjoy your sawdust. 

7. Red Velvet Cake Mix And Many Other Red Foods Are Made With Ground-Up Beetles

If you’ve ever tried to make a solid red cake icing or red cake mix, you know that you usually just end up with something pink. It’s so hard to get that solid red coloring when attempting to make a red food, but thankfully science got ahead of that problem a long time ago. They just didn’t tell you that one of the best ways to get that color is to crush up some bugs. 

Cochineal dye is the technical term for it, but that ingredient is a byproduct of bugs, dried and crushed up. Lord only knows how they figured out this peculiar usage, but when that dried beetle powder meets water, it makes a red pigment unlike any other. Red velvet cake, sausages, and even candy can contain cochineal dye. The little beetles feast off of a certain type of cactus in American deserts, and produce the dye in their stomachs to keep predators away. And you have the gift of the fruits of their efforts in your own stomach. 

6. Lots Of Canned Goods Have BPA In Them

BPA, or Bisphenol A, was a chemical present in many baby products up until recent years. BPA is a building block in the creation of many plastics and linings. It was also linked to cancer and other kinds of birth defects, so it’s not surprising the FDA eventually cancelled it out of those kinds of items. 


Except they didn’t totally do away with it. Many food can linings still have BPA in them. The Center for Environmental Health bought canned food from all sorts of locations in 2017, including supermarkets and dollar stores, and found that 40 percent of them still contained the harmful chemical. The rate was lower than a previous study done two years before, but it’s shocking that almost half canned goods contain such a dangerous substance. The FDA says the amount present in foods is safe, but other states like California are disagreeing and passing their own standards. 

5. Wendy’s Chili Has Sand In It

Of the main fast food chains, Wendy’s is the only one to offer chili, something that you would think should be a staple with burgers and fries. And it’s a pretty serviceable chili, we must say. But while you’re topping your baked potato (also rare at fast food joints!), with it, you should know that there might be sand in it. Yes, sand. 

Silicon dioxide is a substance that’s used in anti-caking applications, and is present in several fast food items. Also known as silica, the substance keeps things like your chili from clumping together into a congealed mess. But it’s also used to make cement and glass, though it’s a different grade of silica. All in all, it’s not much different from the sand on the beach. 

4. Gelatin Is Made With Bones

Think of all the squishy, jiggly foods you have enjoyed in your life. Gummy worms, marshmallows, Jello … all of these things have that texture and mouthfeel that’s very distinctive. And the substance that makes those fun foods so much fun is gelatin. You may know that gelatin can come in powder form or sheets, and is mostly tasteless and odorless in its pure form, but what is that stuff made from?

Bones! Just think about that next time you take a bite of some strawberry Jello, or a green gummy bear. You’re eating a by-product of cartilage, skin, and bones of animals like pigs and cows. It sounds grosser than it really is, but it’s actually showing respect by using the entire animal after getting the meat, and it’s really healthy, containing eighteen amino acids. 

3. Coal Tar Used In Sweeteners

Saccharin is a sweetener that has had a troubled history. Invented in 1879, it was used to sweeten food and drink, but by 1911 was already earning a bad reputation. An attempt to ban it failed, and then the First and Second World Wars saw saccharin use soar during the sugar rations of each conflict. Another attempt to ban saccharin came in 1977, but that too failed. 

You might be surprised to know the origins of saccharin, and it came out of pure dumb happenstance. A Johns Hopkins researcher named Constantin Fahlberg was working on finding different uses for coal tar, of all things. Coal tar is a super thick liquid that’s leftover after coal production. Fahlberg got some on his hands and thought the best idea was to taste it. It was exponentially sweeter than sugar, and his discovery led to the creation of saccharin. Fahlberg soon opened factories to make more of the sweet stuff, but was almost immediately met with skepticism over the safety of it. Good thing he had an ally in the White House in the form of then-President Theodore Roosevelt. 

2. Many Beers Have Dried Fish Bladder In Them

Beer isn’t known for being a particularly complicated beverage. There are lots of variations on the recipe, but the overwhelming majority of beers consist of hops, yeast, water, and grains. It’s a process that’s worked for hundreds, if not thousands of years, and no matter what kind of craft beers add unique ingredients to shake things up, the big four of main components are always there. Well, sometimes there’s dead fish bladders used

Um, pardon? Yes, it’s true, and it’s also a little controversial, as many folks who count on beer to be vegetarian. It’s called isinglass formally, and it’s a kind of gelatin derived from the swim bladder of a fish. It’s been used in many beers to filter out impurities and to make your beer brighter looking and less hazy. Iginglass also helps with overall taste, some say, and helps breweries get an attractive-looking beer out to market in shorter time. The days of isinglass being used might be numbered, however, as no one really will ever get over the thought of fish bladder in their brew. 

1. Processed Bread Have A Substance Made From Human Hair

One staple of the grocery store that surely isn’t tampered with in any way is a simple loaf of bread, right? It’s something you can count on, a simple sliced rectangle of goodness. Flour, yeast, water; it doesn’t get much more simple than that, and from dough to finished product, these baked goods don’t have any room for funny business. 

Unless you count the human hair that’s in many loaves of processed commercial bread. There’s an amino acid in many of them called L-cysteine, and it’s derived from human hair. Gross, yeah? L-cysteine is in these breads to prolong shelf life, which is crucial. It would just be great if there was a way to make it from something other than people’s hair that’s mostly gathered from beauty salon floors in China. L-cysteine can also be extracted from duck feathers and cow horns. These nasty items are dissolved in acid, and once the amino acid is isolated it’s sent off to bread makers, who then use it when baking their loaves. One way to avoid this is purchasing your bread from a local bakery, who mostly use standard, bare-bones ingredients that don’t have follicle juice in them.


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