1. Apples are covered with ground-up bug resin.
It’s called “shellac,” and it’s a waxy resin secreted by the lac bug. That’s what gives apples their shine.
“But wait,” you’re probably saying while chewing on a Red Delicious, “I picked an apple off of a tree, and it still looked shiny.”
That’s because apples create their own natural wax to prevent premature decomposition. Of course, food companies usually remove that wax during the cleaning process. Consumers want their apples to shine, so manufacturers apply a coat of shellac. All better, right?
So, just to recap: Food distributors remove the wax from your apple to “clean” it, then apply the resin from the lac bug, then sell it to you. Oh, and here’s what that shellac looks like before it’s processed.
Shellac is also commonly used on lemons, oranges, and Jelly Belly jelly beans, and it’s not just a resin—many of the bugs are processed along with the resin scrapings. Yes, that means that your apple is covered in ground-up bug bodies. Enjoy.
2. Bread often contains L-cysteine, which is made from duck feathers.
L-cysteine is an amino acid, and it's an essential preservative; it's one of the reasons that your store-bought bread lasts for more than a week, while your grandma's home-cooked loaf starts to turn green after a few days (incidentally, "Grandma's Home-Cooked Loaf" would be a great band name).
It's often made from duck feathers, cow horns, hog hair, and even human hair. Of course, by the time it's added to your bread, it just looks like a nondescript liquid, but still—you'll probably wish that you didn't know about L-cysteine the next time you make a sandwich.
There is such a thing as synthetic L-cysteine, by the way, and you can often find it by looking for Kosher-friendly foods.
3. Soups are made with ultra-thick, ultra-huge carrots.
This is because of the canning process required by the FDA. Cans must be heated to 250 degrees, then shaken violently while the soup maker yells “What did you do?!”
Okay, we made up the part about the yelling, but the rest is true. Commercial soup canneries can’t use standard carrots, since they’re too brittle to withstand the production process, so they grow special carrots that won’t disintegrate.
“They’re like baseball bats,” said David Gombas, vice president of the Center for Development of Research Policy and New Technologies at the National Food Processors Association (they could really use a shorter name). “But once [the carrots] go through the cooking process, they come out looking like the small young ones that you'd put into your soup.”
4. Vanilla flavoring is sometimes made from the scent glands of beavers.
The scent glands of beavers—and we're being very, very careful with our language here—are used to make castoreum. Trust us, you really don't want to know the process.
In any case, castoreum was a common food additive and generally recognized as safe. It was sometimes used in vanilla and raspberry flavorings, although that's much less common now. Why? Well, "harvesting" the castoreum is more expensive than growing vanilla.
In any case, castoreum is still widely used in perfumes, although it's fallen out of favor in the food industry. The Vegetarian Resource Group asked five vanilla manufacturers whether they used castoreum, and all of them denied using the additive.
5. Your butcher might be gluing your steaks together.
It's called "meat glue," because whoever was in charge of naming it wasn't very creative.
Meat glue is a white, powdery substance that can be used to stick two pieces of beef together. It looks just like marbling in the meat, and it's ideal when a butcher needs to do something with the scraps he's got lying around his table.
The good news is that it's not thought to be dangerous, although some consumer groups are pushing supermarket chains to label meats containing the substance.
6. Farm-raised salmon is not pink.
These farm-raised fish typically have grey fillets, while wild-caught salmon have a bright red hue that comes from a steady diet of sea-based krill.
Salmon distributors dye the farmed fish pink with a variety of chemicals, which makes the meat look more appealing. Really, who wants to eat grey anything?
If you find this fact disturbing, you can simply avoid “Atlantic salmon,” which is a cute but misleading euphemism. Those salmon are usually farmed, and in addition to having greyish flesh, they also have a different texture and flavor than wild-caught fish.
The five varieties of salmon that come from the waters of the northern Pacific ocean are typically caught in the wild and have a much richer color reddish-pink color.
7. Raw almonds can kill you.
Almonds actually contain lethal volumes of cyanide; in some countries, you’re not even allowed to purchase raw almonds. In 2014, there was a recall of raw almonds that some naïve people thought were healthier because of faulty logic assuming that raw things are healthier than products that have been cooked.
The FDA wrote a fun-to-read report about what eating small amounts of raw almonds could do to you. They described symptoms such as “dizziness, headache, nausea and vomiting, rapid breathing, rapid heart rate, restlessness, and weakness.”
Eating larger amounts of almonds could lead to “convulsions, loss of consciousness, low blood pressure, lung injury, slow heart rate, and respiratory failure leading to death.” Thankfully, cyanide goes away once these nuts are cooked.
8. Twinkies were originally banana-flavored.
Baker James Alexander Dewar invented Twinkies so that the Continental Baking Company could use equipment designed for packaged strawberry shortcakes when the local fruit was out of season.
Essentially, the company used the same cake, only filled it with a banana cream. The company switched to a vanilla cream filling while bananas were rationed for distribution to soldiers during the Second World War. Could you imagine living in a world with banana- instead of vanilla-filled Twinkies?
9. The truth about blueberry products may give you the blues.
If you’ve been purchasing blueberry products, like muffins, pancakes, cereals, and breads, you may be surprised by the fine print that you never bothered to read.
Some products say that they include “blueberry-flavored crunchlets,” which are actually “made from sugars, soybean oil, red #40 and blue #2.” Others, like Kellogg’s Blueberry Frosted Mini-Wheats®, don’t have any berries listed in their ingredients, despite the healthy fruit being featured prominently on the cover of the box. These facts certainly “blue” our minds.
10. Peanuts aren’t nuts.
Peanuts are legumes, which, for those of you who don’t have advanced degrees in biology, means that they’re closer to peas than to walnuts.
Other than Corn Nuts, which we all know aren’t nuts—right?—everything else that we call a nut is, more specifically, a tree nut.
11. Your favorite strawberry-flavored products may contain more bugs than berries.
Awhile back, some Starbucks customers became seriously upset when they learned that the company had been using an ingredient called cochineal to color some strawberry-flavored products. These included Frappucinos, smoothies, birthday cake pops, miniature donuts, and a red velvet Whoopee pie.
The source of concern was the strange-sounding cochineal, which is produced from a bug that feeds on cacti. When the bug is crushed, it yields a bright pink color, which works well for food dyes and makeups. Of course, it’s a little gross for people who don’t like eating insects (or at least don’t know that they like eating insects).
Starbucks succumbed to pressure to remove this product from some of their products, but if you like eating processed foods that have a pink hue to them, you’re probably consuming bugs. Cochineal is found in various meats, coffees, cookies, marinades, and even some juices.
13. Nutella is mostly just sugar.
Sometimes Nutella is branded as a product that’s comparable to peanut butter, which we now know isn’t even made of nuts, but legumes. The truth is that Nutella is mostly sugar.
When you look on the label of a jar of Nutella, you may notice that sugar is the first ingredient, but if you do a little math, you’ll see that for every 37-gram serving of the chocolatey spread, there are 21 grams of sugar! That mean’s that Nutella is 57 percent sugar. No wonder it tastes so good.
14. Many cheeses use rennet, which isn’t exactly vegetarian-friendly.
Cheeses are made by coagulating milk, and that requires rennet, which is often made from the stomachs of newly born calves, according to the Vegetarian Society. Rennet’s key component is chymosin, which is necessary for the cheese-making process.
However, modern cheese technology (another great band name) has provided several alternatives, including vegetable rennet and microbial rennet. Vegetarians have to be careful, unfortunately, while omnivores typically don't realize that they're eating a product made with calf stomachs.