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The shocking truth about weird ingredients in common foods

Mar 18, 2024

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Let’s see if you can stomach this one.

There was a recent uproar when social media sleuths revealed to a new generation of fast food lovers the vegetarian-unfriendly secret behind McDonald’s golden, delicious fries — beef flavoring mixed in with the vegetable oil, to amp up taste.

But unusual ingredients are actually extremely common in most everyday treats — both sweet and savory — according to consulting food scientist Bryan Quoc Le, who has worked with almond grower Blue Diamond and penned the book “150 Food Science Questions Answered: Cook Smarter, Cook Better.”

“A lot of flavoring is about tricking the brain,” he told The Post. “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.”

This philosophy was proven true when the Internet recently went wild to learn that the shocking flavor of green Haribo gummy bears is actually strawberry, instead of a green fruit like apple or lime.

But on a much broader scale, what truly lies within some of the nation’s favorite — and most consumed — foods are not for the faint of heart.

Animal hair, bugs, weapons-grade acids, wood and moldy rice that’s fatal when not properly treated, are all OK’d by the FDA and frequently find their way onto our plates, according to Le.

Here are some of the most shocking food ingredients you’ve probably already digested.

That’s right. Fast food burgers and chicken nuggets and sandwiches usually have a special ingredient beyond just “secret sauce.”

A very common additive to beef up flavor in fast food meats is an amino acid called cysteine, which is created from microorganisms and bacteria.

“The only large-scale natural source of cysteine is from hair … anything that’s beef flavored will contain this,” Le said, adding that pork products most likely have the ingredient as well.

“What happens is that during the processing of animal-based products, you’re using low quality meat, so in order to amp up the flavoring, you got to add something.”

Le also says cysteine finds it way into many plant-based meats — which are only vegan if properly noted on the packaging.

This is sure to bug you. Shellac wax and red dye carmine — two major additives in jelly beans and other confectionery candies — have their origins from a pair of insects, Le said.

The wax utilizes the lac insect, a creepy crawly known for the hard shell it produces around itself, whereas the dye relies on the cochineal bug, an insect that latches on to cactuses. Prior to 2006, popular Italian bitter Campari relied on cochineals for its iconic red coloring.

“A lot of organic candies will probably have [the wax],” Le said, adding that they “might” also be used for coating fruits and vegetables.

You would probably rather not know that your favorite soft-serve, candy and many more products often come from wood.

Foods like ice cream and peach rings that utilize the synthetic version of vanilla — known as vanillin —have traces of wood in them, according to Le.

“They don’t burn the wood in this process. Instead, they heat it up to a very high temperature, and then they collect the material that vaporizes and do a few [treatments] to it,” Le said of how vanillin gets made.

While desserts might showcase vanillin more prominently, “more or less everything has some amount of vanillin just because it’s so good at masking [undesirable] flavors.”

This isn’t what people mean when they say Coke is “the bomb.” The fizzy soda actually contains phosphoric acid, “a highly reactive compound which is found in tank grenades,” Le said.

Actually, the way both phosphoric acids are made for the soft drink and hard warfare mirror one another, the expert said.

“You could take the same process [for Coke] and shove it into a grenade,” Le said, adding that the chemical composition used for the soda “would basically cut through the steel” of a grenade too upon detonation.

Rest assured, the food-grade version of phosphoric acid is “very refined” compared to industrial uses, according to the flavorist.

Here’s one bound to cause a brouhaha. Beers, juices and cheeses often use diatomaceous earth — a product made from tiny ocean dwelling crustaceans used for pool cleaning — during their brewing stages as a filtration system.

“They’re basically just made of these tiny little micro organisms called diatoms. They’re micro-sized shellfish,” Le said. “We mine this stuff because it’s really great at filtering. It’s just like this random thing that we find in the oceans.”

The chef wasn’t kidding when they said the dish was killer. Soy sauces have their base in a moldy rice and soybean mixture called koji, which under certain conditions can be lethal to eat, Le said.

“Korean [style] soy sauce is made by taking a block of soybean and just putting it outside … if you ate that [raw], you’d probably die,” he added. “It’s a very special process that makes it food safe.”

This won’t sweeten your tea. Gleaming white sugar is unnaturally colored — unlike the raw sugarcane it originates from. The initially brown-toned crop goes through a rather disturbing procedure to get its glisten.

“In order to get white sugar, you’ve got to remove the brown color. Usually what they do, they filter it through animal bone char,” Le said. “Basically, they take animal bones that have been super heated and crushed up and then that material is used as a filter for sugar.”

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