14 Secrets Hidden in Your Nutrition Labels
Bug parts, beaver glands, and fish bladders: You’ll never believe what those unpronounceable words on your food’s ingredient lists actually mean.
Who hasn’t glanced at the wrapper of a recently eaten snack and wondered, what the heck is guar gum, anyway? As much as consumers are encouraged to read labels, it doesn’t do much good if you can’t understand them—and unless you have a PhD in food science, odds are you won’t even recognize half the ingredients listed.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing, points out Ginger Hultin, RD, a nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “Ascorbic acid, for example, is a form of vitamin C that is used as a preservative in food,” she says. Some ingredients, though, have less-than-savory origins, even if there’s no evidence they cause any negative impact on your health. Some turn up in research with links to a health issue. “An association is not a cause, but consumers don’t want to eat foods that are in question,” says Bonnie Taub-Dix, RD, creator of BetterThanDieting.com and author of Read It Before You Eat It: Taking You from Label to Table. Here are 11 common ways people read nutrition labels wrong.
Bugs as food coloringNeale Cousland/Shutterstock
Starbucks faced a backlash when it was revealed that some of their frappuccinos were colored using carmine or cochineal, which is derived from insect shells. The chain has since phased out the additive. They now use tomato extract, says Hultin, but you’ll still find the insect shell-derived ingredients in other products as a colorant. One issue: It makes a seemingly vegan-friendly product not so.
Fish bladders in beerJalisko/Shutterstock
Isinglass, an ingredient derived from the organs of tropical fish, is used to filter some beers and wines. Public outcry caused at least one manufacturer, Guinness, to change their production and make their beverage vegan-friendly. Check out 14 unbelievable food facts that will change the way you eat.
Pig skin in Jell-OIsabel Sala Casteras/Shutterstock
“Gelatin is something that most people are familiar with and often feel fine about consuming, but it is in fact made from animal connective tissue, commonly pig skin,” says Hultin. That puts anything containing gelatin on the do not eat list for vegetarians and vegans. Make sure you’re not falling for these 21 common food myths.
Arsenic in riceMiracle Stock/Shutterstock
For a time, arsenic was popular as a poison—for rats and humans. But small amounts of it are naturally found in certain plant-based foods, especially rice because of how it’s grown. And some research has found that regular exposure to even small amounts of the chemical could be carcinogenic. One troubling report suggests that infant cereals made with rice have six times the arsenic levels of other kinds of infant cereals.
Seaweed in almond milkIllia Iovenko/Shutterstock
You may have noticed some non-dairy milk slapping the term “Carrageenan-free” on their products. That’s the result of controversy over whether the red seaweed extract, used as a thickener, is potentially carcinogenic. The FDA has recommended additional research on the subject so, for now, the jury’s out.
Wood pulp in parmesan cheeseDiana Taliun/Shutterstock
Cellulose is used in many pre-shredded packaged cheeses to help prevent clumping. It’s typically safe at accepted levels (between 2 and 4 percent), but a 2016 investigation by Bloomberg News found that some brands contained more than double that amount.
Car wax in candySuzyanne16/Shutterstock
“I’ve seen carnauba wax in candies—the same stuff that’s in car wax,” says Taub-Dix. It’s generally used in shell-like coatings and, as Taub-Dix points out, may not be the worst thing for you in candy.
Carbon monoxide in meatTatchaphol/Shutterstock
Exposure to oxygen can cause red meat to lose its crimson color and look unappealing (even when still safe to eat). So some manufacturers pump the air out and add a tiny bit of carbon monoxide—yup, the same stuff that comes out of your car’s tailpipe—to the package so it keeps its color.
Sunscreen in salad dressingB Young/Shutterstock
One of sunblock’s most recognizable ingredients, titanium dioxide, is added to some bottled dressings to help keep it shelf stable by—surprise—blocking light, which can degrade the other ingredients. Find out how to decode the 11 trickiest food label terms.
Silicone in French friesK321/Shutterstock
The chemical dimethylpolysiloxane, found in the now-ubiquitous substance used to make everything from phone cases to breast implants, is added to cooking oil in fast food restaurants. And, oddly enough, not only is it not harmful, but Japanese researchers found that it may one day be used to help find a cure for baldness.
Beaver glands in ice creamAlessandroZocc/Shutterstock
Another reason to beware the vague term “natural flavor”: It can include castoreum, a surprisingly pleasant-smelling chemical secreted by beavers. According to a study, low-level, long-term exposure to castoreum extract does not pose a health risk. Here are more things food manufacturers won’t tell you.
Collagen in shrimpTema_Kud/Shutterstock
Here’s another good reason to buy local: Several Asian countries, including Vietnam and China, have reported cases of shrimp tampering in which sellers inject tiger prawns with a gel to increase their weight. Among the ingredients in the gel is collagen, famously known for its lip-plumping prowess. And despite video of the tampering surfacing in 2016, the incidents have been on the rise.
Coal tar in mustardvanillaechoes/Shutterstock
Yellow dye #5—a.k.a. tartrazine—is the second most popular colorant in food. “It’s a synthetic dye that can cause allergic reactions in some people,” says Mascha Davis, RD, a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “It’s cheaper than natural food dyes and has been banned in some countries.” After it was found to increase hyperactivity in children, Kraft Foods dropped the ingredient from its boxed macaroni and cheese, but it remains in many other products under several names.
Duck feathers in pizzaHappy cake Happy cafe/Shutterstock
The amino acid L-cysteine, which is found in duck feathers as well as human hair, is used in many dough-based products. “It’s considered quite safe, but if consumed in very high doses—which is unlikely—it has the potential to cause some unwanted side effects like nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation,” says Davis. Next, learn the food packaging and label tricks you still fall for.