Want some dead bugs with your dinner? Well, that's just one of the freaky ingredients involved in making some popular processed foods. And while all seven of these sound incredibly icky—though presumably used to help make your food tastier or look better—some additives are decidedly more disturbing than others. Here's what you're eating—which may inspire you to start contemplating those ingredient labels a lot more closely.
Natural flavors are the mystery meat of the food-additive world. And while they sound like a good thing—who doesn't want to eat something that's "natural?"—the term can be misleading and confusing. You will find these so-called natural flavors in just about every sort of processed food. They're used to give a "smoked" meat a smoky flavor; give canned peaches back their peachiness; and give an almond-flavored cookie its advertised nuttiness. The mystery is always that when the ingredient isn't specified—and it usually isn't—you don't necessarily know if that "natural flavor" is coming from something you want to eat.
For example, you might assume that if canned peaches list "natural flavoring" in the ingredients list, the flavor would be derived from a peach. But according to Jacobson, it could just as likely be referring to apricot extract. Which is fine, unless perhaps you are allergic to apricots. And according to the current Federal Code of Regulations, a natural flavor could be extracted from meat but does not have to specify that if "the function in the food is flavoring rather than nutritional." Once again, it's a case of consumer beware.
While we're on the subject of bacteria, here's another one. Xanthan gum is a microbial polysaccharide that's derived from the bacteria Xanthomonas campestris. It's used to thicken liquids, and since it takes very little for it to accomplish that goal (concentrations of 0.5 percent or less), it is generally considered safe for use. You'll find it in most bottled salad dressings to help stabilize keep the oil from separating out. But what you may not know is that Xanthomonas campestris is responsible for the plant disease known as black rot.
This is a case of an additive that sounds perfectly disgusting, but experts reassure that it's also perfectly safe—and even smart. Cold cuts and cheeses are often sprayed with a mixture of viruses (known collectively as bacteriophages) that work to help prevent listeria—a microorganism that can be lethal when eaten. "The viruses attack the bacteria and prevent bacterial growth on the food," says Jacobson. "It's actually better than harmless; it's a very clever way to prevent illness."
Gelatin is used in many packaged foods as a thickening agent. In addition to gummy candy, gelatin is found in Jell-O, ice cream and yogurt. But those innocent-looking little Gummi Bears are hiding a somewhat distasteful secret. According to the USDA, the gelatin that gives them their kid-pleasing texture is created at the expense of several different animal parts, including ligaments, skin, tendons and bones. Though some non-animal versions of gelatin are available, vegetarians know to avoid packaged foods containing gelatin, unless it's specifically labeled as being derived from a vegetarian source.
Just in case you haven't eaten your fill of bugs, here's another opportunity for insect consumption. Shellac—which is used to make that shiny coating on jelly beans and to give fresh fruits and vegetables that perfect, glossy finish—is made from the excretions of Kerria lacca insects that are native to Thailand. Again, vegetarian lobbyists have urged the FDA to require that labeling indicate if fruits and vegetables are coated with an insect-derived substance. The FDA wouldn't go that far, but, according to Jacobson, it did require produce packers to disclose whether any coating used is animal- or vegetable-derived. "But it would be on a placard or on the box of produce, not in bold type on the fruit or vegetable itself," says Jacobson, and not necessarily displayed to grocery shoppers. "And I don't know that the regulation is very strongly enforced," he adds.
This is a fancy way of saying seaweed, and it's used as a thickening agent in foods such as ice cream, pudding and other dairy products. According to Jacobson, it's extracted from red seaweed that's plentiful on the Irish coast. It meets the FDA's GRAS (Generally Regarded as Safe) criteria and it's vegetarian, unlike some other gelling agents.
According to the FDA, this red food coloring (also known as cochineal extract) is made from dried, ground bugs . The Dactylopius coccus costa insect is native to Peru and the Canary Islands, where it feeds on red berries. The berries accumulate in the females' stomachs and in their unhatched larvae—which is what gives the extract its red coloring. Carmine is one of the most widely used coloring agents, and food manufacturers routinely use it to turn foods shades of pink, red or purple. Chances are it's what makes the color of your strawberry yogurt or that cranberry drink look so appealing.
But the problem is that at the moment, you have no way of knowing if you're ingesting these little red bugs. Instead, the label will simply read, "artificial color" or "color added." But the Vegetarian Legal Action Network petitioned the FDA to disclose the presence of carmine, and in 2010, that requirement will go into effect. "But it will still be listed only as carmine or cochineal extract, with no mention of the ingredient's source," says Michael Jacobson, Ph.D., executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. "The onus will be on the consumer to know what carmine is, and that's asking a lot."