Wood, bugs, and other gross things you didn't know you were eating

We hate to break it to you, but you’re most likely eating a lot of unsavory things that you had no idea about. We’re not talking about the fruit fly that flew into your Coke without you realizing it (although that’s probably happened), we’re talking about things that are added at the factory, or allowed to crawl into the vat at the factory, and while they’re unrecognizable by the time that they reach your plate, you’re still eating them.

While most food additives and flavorings are artificially synthesized completely from chemicals, plenty of the ones that make their way into foods that we eat all the time are derived from, shall we say, “natural” sources. And while at first glance “natural” is always better than “artificial,” these sources can range from wood pulp to the secretions of a beaver.

Wait, what? Yes, you heard that right. Castoreum is a yellowish-brown substance that Beavers use to “mark their territory,” and carries a musky, vanilla-like scent that gives off more leathery, fruity nuances when diluted with alcohol. It’s long been used in perfume, and for a long time it was also a flavoring component of strawberry and raspberry-flavored ice cream, candy, flavored drinks, and yogurt. However, total annual consumption of castoreum is less than 300 pounds (and it’s also not exactly easy to procure), which means that the odds of it actually being in any of the food you eat nowadays is slim to none, so we excluded it from our list (whew!).

So with that unpleasantness behind us, let’s move on to some (slightly) less nauseating things that are actually making their way into some of the foods you eat, albeit usually highly altered from their natural state.

1. Wood

timber closeup

timber closeup (iStock/McDonald's)

Cellulose is an indigestible fiber that’s used as an “extender” in the food industry, meaning that it can take the place of everything from meat to fat. It appears in ingredient listings as cellulose gum, powdered cellulose, and other names, but the source of it is usually the same: tree pulp, a cheap, non-toxic additive. Cellulose is an ingredient in everything from McDonald’s McRibs to Eggo Blueberry Waffles and Morningstar Farms Chick’n Nuggets.

2. Cochineal Extract


Cochineal extract, also known as carmine in a more refined state, is a very common red food coloring that’s made by drying beetles collected from prickly pear cactus plants, then crushing them and extracting the bright red fluid. It’s found in plenty of foods, ranging from strawberry Yoplait to Nerds candies, and Starbucks was forced to find other ways to color its Strawberry Frappuccino in the face of public outrage.

3. Hair and Feathers


A non-essential amino acid called L-Cysteine is usually used as a dough conditioner, and is a common ingredient in manufactured pizza doughs, cookies, pastries, and fast-food breads. As recently as 10 years ago, the primary source of this chemical was human hair swept up from the floors of Chinese barber shops, from which it would be extracted through a complex chemical process. Nowadays its primary source is duck feathers, which still isn’t exactly appetizing, but a lot better than barber shop cast-offs. The amino acid can be found in everything from Einstein Bros Bagels to McDonald’s apple pies.

4. Lac Beetle


Ever hear of shellac? It’s used in just about every industry where a shiny outer layer is needed, from pharmaceuticals to woodworking. But it’s also used to give lots of food, especially candies, that shiny shell. In order to make shellac, the sticky, sap-based secretions of a female lac bug are scraped from the bark of a tree before being placed into a canvas bag and heated until liquefied. The bark and insect parts stay behind and the shellac leaks through. It’s broken up into flakes, then dissolved in alcohol to bring it back to liquid state. In food, shellac is what gives the vast majority of the candies you eat (from Milk Duds to Whoppers to Raisinettes to Jelly Belly jelly beans) that shiny outer shell.

Find out other surprising things you didn't know you were eating.

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