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9 most sickening food ingredients

News about gross-out ingredients like pink slime and ammonia (more about both later) got us thinking: What other surprises lurk in the food we eat? We put that question to food safety as well as food manufacturing experts, and it turns out all kinds of things go into refined and processed foods that you wouldn’t willingly put in your mouth. Here's a few...read at your own risk!

That’s not to say it isn’t safe to eat. 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. But the idea that something seems “just plain wrong” often isn’t part of the calculation.

Here’s a list of food ingredients that rate high in the yuck factor.

Gelatin

What it is: Vegetarians prepare to be shocked! 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.

The source varies depending on the type of food, said Andrew Milkowsi, adjunct professor of animal sciences at the University of Wisconsin Madison. The gelatin in desserts, for instance, comes mainly from pig skin.

Where you’ll find it: Gelatin, which is a thickening agent, can also be found in frosted cereals, yogurt, candy, and some types of sour cream. (Check the label.)

Gross-out factor: High for vegetarians, low for everyone else.

Mechanically separated meat

What it is: Mechanically separated meat is what’s left over after the meat clinging to the bones of chicken or pork are forced through a sieve-like structure using high pressure. “It looks like a paste or batter,” said Sarah Klein, a staff attorney with the Food Safety Program at the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “You have crushed bits of bone and cartilage and other things that can end up in that final paste.”

Because of the risk of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or mad cow disease, mechanically separated beef is no longer allowed in human food.

Where you’ll find it: Some hot dogs and other products (again, check the label)

Gross-out factor: High

Carbon monoxide

What it is: We have carbon monoxide detectors in our homes for a reason: this odorless gas can be deadly. But the same stuff that comes from the exhaust pipe of your vehicle is also used in packaging ground beef and some fish like tilapia and tuna. It helps them retain their youthful blush, said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food & Water Watch.

Where you’ll find it: Carbon monoxide is injected into plastic wrap after all the air is sucked out to block the process of oxidation that can turn pink meat brown. The process is considered safe for humans although it isn’t widely used anymore, said Lovera. Consumer groups have objected to the treatment's potential to mask meat spoilage.

Gross-out factor: Medium

Shellac

What it is: Candy lovers, cover your eyes: pretty, shiny treats 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.

Where you’ll find it: Shellac makes jelly beans, candy corn, and other hard-coated candy look shiny. It may be called a “confectioner’s glaze” on the packaging. So sweet, and yet so sick.

Gross-out factor: Low

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More from Health.com:

11 Things It's Best to Buy Organic

10 Types of Food That Can Make You Sick

The 22 Worst Foods for Trans Fat

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Saltwater injections

What it is: Saltwater is fine in the ocean, but injected into food? Believe it! Too much salt can contribute to high blood pressure and other health problems, so less is better. But in a practice called plumping, manufacturers inject salt and other ingredients into raw meat (mostly chicken) to enhance flavor and increase the weight of the meat before it’s sold.

Where you’ll find it: In packaged meat, and you should avoid it! Check the fine print and the nutrition facts label. Meat that’s been injected may say “flavored with up to 10 percent of a solution” or “up to 15 percent chicken broth.” Regular chicken has about 40 to 70 mg of sodium per 4-ounce serving, while plumped chicken can contain 5 times or more than that amount, or 300 mg and up.

Gross-out factor: High, for health reasons

Viruses

What it is: Don’t viruses make us sick? Well yes, but bacteriophages —tiny bacteria-killing viruses—actually help us by making bacteria sick. First approved for use on food in 2006, bacteriophages infect food-contaminating germs, not humans, said Milkowski.

Where you’ll find it: Manufacturers spray these on ready-to-eat meat and deli products that are sold in sealed plastic pouches. The bacteriophage products come in two types: One that combats E. coli and the other Listeria bacteria. (Only the second is used on food; the first is used to spray cattle.) Check the ingredient list for the words “bacteriophage preparation."

Gross-out factor: Low

Ammonia

What it is: Ammonia is a strong smelling chemical found in household cleaning products, but it’s also used as gas to kill germs in low-grade fatty beef trimmings.

“The trim (of animal meat) is prone to having more bacteria on it,” Lovera explainrd. “They use ammonia as a kill step to deal with the bacteria during processing.”

Where you’ll find it: This controversial practice started around 2001, and the resulting product—sometimes called pink slime—is used as a filler in ground beef.

Gross-out factor: High

Pink slime

What it is: 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.

Gross-out factor: High

Bisphenol A

What it is: Though the chemical bisphenol A, or BPA, has been removed from most hard plastics (including baby bottles and sippy cups), it can still be found in the sealant in the lining of some cans, said Lovera.

Where you’ll find it: “This can be especially problematic with acidic foods like tomatoes,” she said. “The concern is that it leaks into foods.”

BPA has been linked to brain, behavior and prostate problems, especially in fetuses and children.

Gross-out factor: High

Click here to read 9 more sickening ingredients from Health.com.