Social media detectives discovered the reason McDonald’s fries aren’t vegetarian - they contain beef flavoring to make them taste like the fries everyone loves. Now that wasn’t new information, but finding out was shocking to some folks, who might not have known that unusual ingredients are actually used often in some of the foods we love.
“A lot of flavoring is about tricking the brain,” explains food scientist Bryan Quoc Le.“Because about 80% of what you eat and experience as flavor is not in its taste itself, but in its smell, as well as its appearance.” He says animal hair, bugs, weapons-grade acids and wood are all approved by the FDA and these are some of the shocking ingredients you’ve probably eaten without realizing it.
- Animal hair in fast food - A common ingredient used to flavor beef in fast food meat is an amino acid called cysteine. Le explains, “The only large-scale natural source of cysteine is from hair … anything that’s beef flavored will contain this,” adding that pork products also most likely contain it.
- Bugs in candy - Shellac wax and red dye carmine are often used in candy like jelly beans and they’re both made from bugs. Shellac wax comes from the lac insect and the red dye comes from the cochineal bug.
- Wood in vanilla products and peach rings - Foods like ice cream and peach ring candies that use the synthetic version of vanilla, known as vanillin, contain traces of wood, Le says. “More or less everything has some amount of vanillin just because it’s so good at masking undesirable flavors,” he explains.
- Military-grade acid in Coke - The popular soda contains phosphoric acid, which the food scientist explains is “a highly reactive compound which is found in tank grenades.” While the food-grade version is “very refined” compared to the industrial one, he says it mirrors the one used for weapons.
- Pool cleaning supplies in beer, juice and cheese - These foods often contain diatomaceous earth - which is made from tiny sea crustaceans and is used for pool cleaning. It’s great for filtering and is used during the brewing stages as a filtration system.
- Mold in soy sauce - Le says Korean style soy sauce is made by taking a block of soybean and putting it outside, adding that “if you ate that raw, you’d probably die,” but a special process makes it food safe.
- Animal bones in white sugar - Raw sugarcane starts out brown and to get the brown color out, sugar is often filtered through animal bone char to make it white.