Common Food Additives That Might Freak You Out

Food has additives. If you're the kind of person who is better off not knowing then stop reading here. I'm the kind of person who figures if I was eating it before and didn't have a problem then no worries. Mostly.

The Food and Drug Administration and other agencies spend lots of time and energy to make sure you’re not eating stuff that will kill you. Unfortunately there are lots of things that won't kill you, are absolutely safe to eat but the idea of eating them is disgusting! 

The tricky thing about this list is that the ingredients are mostly organic and all natural. So if you're making choices based on these labels, you still might be ingesting some of these additives. For example, the secretion from the anal gland of a beaver is totally all natural and organic but that doesn't mean you want to be eating it, does it? (And yes, that is on this list)


Cellulose gel AND cellulose gum.
Wait...natural flavour too? What KIND of natural flavour?

It sounds harmless. It really is harmless, or they wouldn't put it in our food. What is it? Cellulose is the structural component of the primary cell wall of green plants and many forms of algae. For industrial use, cellulose today is mainly obtained from wood pulp and cotton.

Cellulose powder is used in Kraft's Parmesan cheese to prevent caking inside the container. It is used in packages of shredded cheese to keep the shreds from sticking together.

MacDonald's uses cellulose in several of its menu items and just because they're named here doesn't mean they're the only ones. Lists like this love to show bulky, sweaty, city workers using a wood chipper as they describe cellulose but cellulose is not that crude. It is the most common organic compound on Earth. It's what gives plants their structure. Celery anyone? If you're into the low fat options in salad dressings you're eating cellulose.  Kraft foods spokeswoman Susan Davidson says; "Cellulose has unique properties making it the best choice to perform certain functions, such as anticaking, thickening and replacing fat". OK? So calm down.


Moisturizers with lanolin are common products

We get most of our lanolin from domestic sheep raised for their wool.

Lanolin, also called wool wax or wool grease, is a yellow waxy substance secreted by the sebaceous glands of wool-bearing animals.  Hang on...secretions of sebaceous glands is also what causes humans to have blackheads. Sheep raised for their wool are not used for meat production. Why? Because of the presence of lanolin. It makes the meat taste really bad. So...sure I can understand why lanolin is in our moisturizing products and sunscreens but why do they put it in our chewing gum?

CARMINE (red food dye)

[photo: candywarehouse]

Cluster of female cochineal beetles.  It takes 70,000 of these little beetles, dried, to make one pound of colour.

This one is pretty well known. Basically if it's red, it didn't grow that way, and is said to have natural food colouring then it has most likely been coloured with this beetle.

Snopes will back that up here.

The cochineal is a scale insect from which the crimson-coloured dye carmine is derived. Native to South America and Mexico this insect lives on cacti, feeding on plant moisture and nutrients.

The insect produces carminic acid that deters predation by other insects. Carminic acid and carmine is primarily used as a food colouring and for cosmetics. There you have it.

Snopes mentions the huge backlash suffered by Starbucks when it was discovered that the red dye used in their Strawberries & Creme Frappaccino was Carmine. They explained that the use of this dye was in keeping with their move away from using artificial ingredients. See? That's where they get you. Since April 2012, they switched to another all natural coloring called lycopene and is derived from tomatoes. No doubt extracted by torture and other inhumane methods. If we don't speak for tomatoes, who will? Who will, I ask you???


[photo: Florence Devouard]

Silicon dioxide is what gets in your bathing suit and your hair at the beach. Affectionately known as sand, it’s also found in food. “It’s used in a lot of things as a flow agent and partly because it does a nice job of absorbing a little bit of atmospheric humidity that would cause clumping in a variety of things,” says Milkowski. Swallowing a little sand at the shore probably never hurt you and it probably won’t hurt you at the dinner table either.

Why are products made with silicon dioxide not gritty? It's very finely ground, that's why.

You'll find it in salts, soups and coffee creamer (again)


The ick-factor double whammy. Flavoured, sweetened gelatinous animal skin by product coloured with cochineal beetles.

The same stuff that puts the jiggle in Jello and other gelatin-based products is derived from collagen, a protein often collected from animal skins. You must have seen the gelatinous leavings on a platter after you remove the roast or turkey for refrigerating. That's what we're talking about here.

The source varies depending on the type of food, says Andrew L. Milkowsi, PhD, adjunct professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin Madison. The gelatin in desserts, for instance, comes mainly from pig skin. Gelatin as a thickening agent can also be found in frosted cereals, yogurt, candy and some types of sour cream.

Muslim friends of mine could not eat Jello products or gelatin from our grocery stores because they knew it was derived from animals. Their animals must be Halal, ceremoniously slaughtered, and since ours were not they could not eat Jello - something you would never have imagined had a connection to animals. Now, our gelatin products use non-animal ingredients now but you have to check labels.


Kerria lacca

Jelly Beans

Shiny candy like jelly beans come at a price. They're often coated with shellac, a sticky substance derived from secretions of the female Kerria lacca, an insect native to Thailand.

Shellac makes jelly beans, candy corn, and other hard-coated candy look shiny. It may be called a “confectioner’s glaze” on the packaging. I've definitely seen that on the list of ingredients before.


Front end of beaver [not shown: back end of beaver]

[photo: H. Zell]

Castoreum is a natural food flavouring and is extracted from the castor sac scent glands of the male or female beaver, which are located near the anus. According to Milkowski, the substance is pretty expensive (think about what it probably takes to obtain it) and is more common in perfume than in actual foods. I hope this means it's rarely found in items that are not outrageously priced. Ambergris is found in perfume too and it's hella expensive and it's barfed up or excreted by sperm whales.

Where you’ll find castoreum: While it sounds downright disgusting, the FDA says it’s GRAS, meaning it’s “generally recognized as safe.” You won’t see this one on the food label because it’s generally listed as “natural flavoring.”

Note: After learning of this food flavouring a couple of us contacted Tim Hortons head office and we were emailed a list of all flavourings used in their products. None of them contained castoreum. We didn't ask about cochineal beetle food colouring though...


Pink slime is a product derived from the bits of meat clinging to fat, which are separated out by melting the fat away and spinning in a centrifuge.

The result is a pinkish substance called lean finely textured beef that’s treated with ammonia gas to kill germs, and then added to ground beef as a filler. Lots of ground beef, as in 10 billion pounds per year.

Where you’ll find it: Recent furor over the concoction has caused companies like Wendy’s and McDonald’s to report that their hamburgers are pink slime-free and some supermarkets like Safeway and Wegmans to say they will no longer carry it. Schools participating in the National School Lunch Program now have the option of ordering beef without it, according to the USDA.

Honorable mentions:

Carageenan: seaweed

Liquid Smoke:  made by burning sawdust and capturing the components in either water or a vegetable oil,

Antibiotics: Fed to livestock, this is concern because it contributes to bacteria that is resistant to antibiotics like salmonella.

Red Dye #40: Substituted for Carmine, it's made from coal


iambriezy said...

Who's hungry?? Meh. Who am I kidding? I'll eat it it anyway.

Anonymous said...

Did you hear about Tesco branch burgers in the UK having horsemeat in them?

I stopped eating beef and pork years ago. (I thought)

Good bye orange flavoured jello - I will miss you.


Frimmy said...

Nothing bothered me except the castoreum. I think I will find out what flavourings are castoreum based before I eat anything. The food colouring from bugs didn't really bother me that much, but the beaver secretion freaks me out.

The pink slime was gross but so many companies have stopped using it that I trust I'm not getting it when I buy meat.

Ann, I know some countries consider horses to be livestock and have no issue with eating them. I don't have a problem with that because I am one of those rare females who doesn't see horses as friends but as animals the same way I see cows or pigs as animals. I don't know if I could ever eat horse meat, but that has more to do with the fact that I don't eat a lot of red meat to start with.

Anonymous said...

I don't think you have to think of them as friends, if you visited a few farms and saw the living conditions of most that will likely give you bit more pause.

Did for me anyway...


Frimmy said...

True. I'd actually cry over a monkey being abused or neglected and you know how I feel about monkeys. I haven't been exposed to any horse barns where they weren't pampered And treated like royalty. That must be a rare thing.


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