Science reveals the most horrible ingredients in our food

Science reveals the most horrible ingredients in our food

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It’s an unspoken rule among processed food connoisseurs that you don’t think too carefully about what may be in what you’re eating. If we really knew what went into our favourite greasy late-night snacks, the chances are that we’d feel far less enthusiastic about indulging. While most of us can accept that there could be a few chicken feet and cow eyeballs scattered throughout the frozen food section of the supermarket, the reality is often far more upsetting. Unfortunately, unpalatable animal parts and other additives can end up in the most unexpected places. Here’s a collection of some of the more horrible.

Vanilla Ice Cream

There are few childhood memories that can be as comforting as licking a towering, cool cone of vanilla ice cream in the hot summer sun. It might seem obvious that vanilla ice cream is flavoured with vanilla, but there is a hidden component that may be lurking in the treat’s creamy folds. Castoreum, which has featured in foods and fragrances for over 80 years, is used by a number of different companies, often without being declared. The substance is extracted from glands just above a beaver’s anus. Suddenly vanilla ice cream doesn’t feel quite so comforting.

North American Beaver on a riverbank Credit: Wiki Commons


There’s something inherently suspicious about cheap white bread that lasts twice as long as its more artisan rivals. The key chemical component in processed white bread is the amino acid L-Cysteine, which is incorporated specifically to prolong shelf-life. While this may be unappetising for some, the origin of the substance is downright alarming. A recent study claimed that the chemical, present in human hair, was harvested from barbershops in China, before being synthesised.

Hair on the barbershop floor during a busy day of haircutting at Bill's Gents' Hairdressing. Credit: Amelia Lindsay 2012.


It seems a self-evident truth that a fruit is vegetarian. However, in some cases, even this most obvious of facts can be flouted by food manufacturers. Bananas are a particular target. In order to prevent the fruit from over-ripening in transit, batches are regularly sprayed with the substance chitosan. Unfortunately for vegans and vegetarians, chitosan is made from prawn shells.

Prawn shells in a pile Credit: South Sea Island Home

Cake Mix

It’s not just animal extract that can ruin childhood favourites. Eating raw cake mix is another one of those things that we all know is bad, but can’t help loving. While we all knew it was unhealthy, the reality is worse than we could have imagined. Pre-prepared cake mixes often use the antifreeze ingredient propylene glycol to prevent the fat from congealing together in the bag. Licking a chocolatey spoon suddenly seems a whole lot less delicious.

Antifreeze being poured into a car Credit: ThoughtCo

Chicken Nuggets

The infamous chicken nugget is the target of more than its fair share of scepticism. Over the years, they’ve been rumoured to have all sorts of unappetising ingredients hiding beneath their golden batter. Unfortunately, these rumours are not entirely without merit. The same report that discovered hair in our bread also found that certain nuggets not only contained about 50 per cent chicken meat, but were also pumped full of dimethypolysiloxane - the primary ingredient in making breast implants. Clearly, any nuggets that reference “chicken breasts” should be taken, both literally and figuratively, with a huge pinch of salt.

Chicken nuggets with salad on a plate Credit: Sick Chirpse

While the secrets behind some of our favourite food may be offputting, we say it’s always better the devil you know. While you may have to be more vigilant, you can rest easy that you won’t ever have to accidentally eat beaver scrotum again. At least now, you’ll know what to keep an eye out for.