Food is a weird thing. So much of what we eat nowadays is mass-produced and made in factories. Which means many of the ingredients used to keep things fresh and preserved come from odd and sometimes gross places. Here are some of the weirdest and grossest things from which ingredients in our food are derived. You may wish to be near a receptacle for the inevitable tossing of cookies.1. Bug secretions/shellac
You know shellac. The stuff we put on wood to make it all shiny and nice. Well, that same shellac is also used on foods to make them shiny and nice — foods like jelly beans, for instance. Shellac is also made out of the secretions from the female “lac bug” in India and Thailand. They just scrape that junk right off the tree and into your jelly beans with some of the actual bugs undoubtedly coming with it. The process isn’t exactly like that, but you get the idea.
2. Human hair
Next time you’re sweeping up the crumbs from your morning bagel, just think that one of its ingredients could’ve been swept off the floor of a barbershop in China or India just months earlier, according to several (although probably dubious) online articles. L-Cysteine, an amino acid that gives hair its strength, is also what gives bread its softness and bounce. Up until very recently, most L-Cys was derived from human hair, which contains the most L-Cys by weight, although it can also come from poultry feathers and produced synthetically in a lab. A Mother Jones reporter in 2010 called a large list of manufacturers in the U.S. to find out if they used human-hair L-Cys in their products but most wouldn’t tell her where it came from. So I guess the rest of us are left wondering if we’re eating the remains of some random person’s ponytail.
3. Beaver anal secretions
Also known as Castoreum, this vanilla-substitute substance is classified as “generally recognized as safe” by the Food and Drug Administration, which means it doesn’t have to be listed by its name in ingredients lists — so it is often seen as “natural flavoring.” Take heart, though, because this liquid literally comes from the anal glands of North American beavers and is thus a difficult and somewhat expensive product to manufacture — the beavers have to be anesthetized and their nether regions “milked” — so you won’t actually find this ingredient in too many foods. But still — beaver butt juice? Who thinks of this stuff?
4. Ground-up bugs
Carmine, also known as “natural red 4,” is produced from insects called cochineal. The insects create this red secretion to ward off predators, so they are harvested in large quantities, dried and boiled to extract the coloring. This particular dye is used widely in foods and cosmetics. You can find it in any ruby red grapefruit juice, some flavors of Nerds, and some strawberry yogurts. Luckily, this is required by the FDA to be listed as “carmine” or “cochineal” on the label so just look before you eat.
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