5 Weird And Gross Food Additives That Have Made Headlines

There's WHAT in my food?

Young Woman Groceries Shopping In Local Supermarket.
Ingredients: Beef, Barbecue Sauce, Yoga Mats... vgajic / Getty Images

There's a long journalistic tradition of revealing the weird and gross hidden ingredients in common foods. 

It traces back to the days of muckraking journalism in the early 20th Century, when Upton Sinclair shocked Americans by exposing the disgusting secrets of Chicago's meat-packing industry. His 1906 novel, The Jungle, revealed that it was common practice for workers to shovel up whatever was on the slaughterhouse floor (dead rats, garbage, the occasional human finger) and toss it into the sausage-making machines.

The outcry this revelation produced helped lead to the creation of the Food and Drug Administration, whose mission was to regulate the food industry.

Since then, newspaper readers have been treated to a regular parade of reports about unappetizing hidden ingredients in their food. Quite often these additives are perfectly legal, which means that the FDA considers them to be safe for consumption in limited amounts, but their presence in food still comes as a shock to consumers. At times the media helps to stoke the outcry by describing the additives in somewhat sensationalist terms.

Below are five gross food additives that have made headlines in the 21st Century.

Wood Pulp

In February 2016, a Bloomberg news investigation revealed that many brands of parmesan cheese sold in America contained significant levels of "wood pulp product.

The term "wood pulp product" might suggest an image of sawdust being shoveled into vats of cheese — particularly because there's a long history of sawdust in food which the 2016 cheese story (perhaps unintentionally) evoked.

For instance, during the World Wars of the 20th Century, many prisoners of war interred in German and Japanese camps came home with tales of having been fed "sawdust bread."

However, the wood pulp in the parmesan cheese is a far cry from sawdust. It's refined, food-grade, powdered cellulose — flavorless, calorie-free, and legal.

Though, yes, the cellulose is created from wood pulp.

Cellulose is used as a thickener and stabilizer in many foods you might not expect it to be in (such as ice cream and yogurt). When added to parmesan cheese, it helps to prevent the cheese from caking inside of the package.

The problem is that the parmesan cheese investigated by Bloomberg was being described as "100 percent parmesan cheese," even though it was, in some case, as much as 10 percent wood pulp/cellulose. The lawyers have now started to circle, with lawsuits being filed against the cheese makers.

Pink Slime

In 2001, the USDA approved the addition of "lean finely textured beef" to ground beef. This term was a euphemism for slaughterhouse trimmings, treated with ammonia to "retard spoilage" and then turned into a "mashlike substance frozen into blocks or chips." Its addition to ground beef could lower production costs by up to three cents a pound. So it quickly became widely adopted in the industry.

But in December 2009 the New York Times ran an article about the meat additive in which it quoted an FDA microbiologist who described the stuff as "pink slime." The term quickly caught on. 

In 2012, ABC News ran a story in which it warned consumers that almost 70 percent of ground beef sold in the US included this "pink slime." The story prompted Beef Products, Inc.

(the leading manufacturer of the stuff) to file a lawsuit against ABC for false claims. 

Yoga Mats

Headlines in November 2011 warned consumers that the McDonalds McRib sandwich contained an ingredient also found in yoga mats and shoe soles. The Boulder Examiner came up with the term "McYoga Mat."

The headlines suggested images of yoga mats being ground up and mixed into food, but that wasn't quite the case. The shared ingredient was a substance called azodicarbonamide, widely used in the baking industry to condition dough, but also used as a blowing agent in the manufacture of vinyl foam. Thus, its presence in yoga mats.

The amount of azodicarbonamide in the dough of the McRib bun was extremely small — about 45 parts per million. The substance was also approved for use in food by the FDA. However, the negative publicity about the dual use in bread and yoga mats eventually led some companies, such as the Subway sandwich chain, to stop adding it to their products.

Human Hair

In 2004, it was reported that a Chinese factory in Hubei had been caught cutting costs by making soy sauce out of human hair instead of soybeans. The reason it could do this was because hair is, ultimately, just a bunch of protein and so can serve as the base for soy sauce, just like beans. Consumers were warned to keep an eye out for sauces described as "blended." 

Human-hair soy sauce is illegal. However, hair can find its way into food as one of the source materials for l-cysteine, an amino acid used by bakers to make dough softer and more elastic. In fact, there's a million-dollar market for human hair, mostly supplied from Asia where it's swept up off the floors of barber shops. 

Other source materials for l-cysteine includes feathers, horns, and hooves.

Crushed Bugs

If you've ever eaten food that contains red food dye (such as various types of ice cream, yogurt, fake lobster, beverages, cocktail cherries, etc.), there's a good chance you've eaten crushed bugs. 

Reporters have repeatedly called attention to this, with headlines such as "Is your strawberry ice cream made with beets or South American bugs?" 

The bug in question is a tiny one found on prickly pear cacti in Mexico and South America, and it's been used as a red dye for centuries, going all the way back to the Aztecs. It's listed on ingredients as "carmine" or "cochineal extract."

Modern food producers like it because it has a longer shelf-life than plant-based dyes, even though it's not cheap.

The FDA has resisted calls from consumer groups to require products using carmine to have "insect-based" written on their label. The agency also notes that there's no evidence of "significant hazard" in its use.