You may remember the processed meat pink-goo controversy that took the fast-food world by storm a few years ago. In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap… pretty gross, right?! While many fast food chains claim they no longer use mechanically process meat (pink goo), there are still plenty of reason to be concerned about how fast-food is made.
Many of the health concerns of eating fast-food are obvious: deep-fried, high-fat, sugar-packed, etc. But some of the most questionable aspects – like food additives – are not quite as easy to unpack. People have been adding flavors, spices, natural preservatives and ripening agents to food since antiquity. But the popularity of processed food has risen dramatically since the 1950s, and so has the astounding array of bizarre chemical additives used in food manufacturing. If these additives listed as ingredients you’ll need a dictionary to pronounce the words, let alone understand what they mean for your health. And even if they’re FDA approved, the science fiction of it all is a bit unsettling (to say the least).
Let’s take a look at some of the more horrifying ingredients you’re imbibing when you hit the drive-thru.
L-Cysteine (duck feathers & human hair)
It has long been know that fast food chains use L-cysteine, an amino acid synthesized most commonly from human hair or duck feathers, to flavor their meat and soften their breads and pastries. In the early 2000s CNN reported that most L-cysteine came from Chinese women who helped support their families by selling their locks to small chemical-processing plants. It seems like many manufacturers have moved away from hair-derived L-cysteine since then, and according to The Vegetarian Resource Group, 80% of L-cysteine is now derived from duck feathers. During their research, McDonald’s told the VRG that the L-cysteine used in its Baked Hot Apple Pie, as well as its Wheat Roll and Warm Cinnamon Roll, was of the duck-feather variety. And it’s not just McD’s… many other fast-food joints rely on L-cysteine in bakery products as well.
Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is derived from petroleum and finds its home in cosmetic and skincare products, varnish, lacquers, resins, and processed food. McDonald’s, for example, uses it in 18 products ranging from its Fruit and Walnut Salad to Griddle Cakes to McNuggets. TBHQ is also widely used as a preservative in hundreds of processed foods occupying the shelves at your local grocery store. TBHQ was originally approved after many years of pressure from food manufacturers, though with the FDA mandated that the chemical must not exceed 0.02% of a food’s oil and fat content. Why the limit? Because one gram can cause nausea, vomiting, delirium, a sense of suffocation and collapse. And because just five grams can be lethal. YIKES.
Dimethylpolysiloxane (Silly Putty plastic)
It’s the secret ingredient that keeps fryer oil from foaming. McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish and French fries have it, as do Wendy’s Natural-Cut Fries With Sea Salt. In fact, most fast-food items that bathe in a deep-fat fryer are imbued with a hint of dimethylpolysiloxane. Should you be concerned? Let us put it this way: why would you want to eat something that is a main ingredient in silly putty, caulking, heat resistant tiles, shampoo and conditioners, contact lenses, nail polish, and dozens of other cosmetic products?
Carminic Acid (beetle juices)
Yes, you read that right: beetle juice. Carminic acid is widely used as a red food coloring, and it comes from the dried, crushed bodies of female insects called cochineal. Carminic acid is used in a wide variety of products ranging from meat, sausages, processed poultry products, marinades, bakery products, toppings, cookies, desserts, icings, pie fillings, jams, preserves, gelatins, juices, drinks, dairy products, sauces and dessert products. If you ever see Natural Red 4, Cochineal Extract, Carmine, Crimson Lake, C.I. 75470, or E120 on an ingredient label, you can bet you’re eating the juices from a squashed beetle.
Cellulose is just processed wood pulp, and you’ll find it in nearly every fast-food menu item. Food processors use it to thicken and stabilize foods, replace fat and boost fiber content, as well as to minimize reliance on more costly ingredients like oil or flour. Wood pulp is used in everything from cheese to salad dressing to muffins to strawberry syrup. Ironically, the public increase in nutritional awareness has brought an increase in the use of cellulose because the addition of wood pulp to a product increases the fiber content. Maybe think twice next time you order a “healthier” menu option at your local McDonald’s, Taco Bell, Subway, KFC, Sonic, Pizza Hut, Wendy’s, Arby’s, or Jack in the Box… unless you don’t mind the wood.
Silicon Dioxide (sand)
Silicon dioxide, also known as silica (also known as sand!), is used to make glass, optical fibers, ceramics and cement. It’s also commonly used as a natural insecticide. Oh, and it’s a main ingredient in fast-food chili. Utilized as an anti-caking agent, silicon dioxide is added to processed beef and chicken to prevent clumping, and is listed in the ingredient panels for chili from dozens of fast food chains that serve that menu item. Most experts suggest that it isn’t harmful for consumption, but it’s kinda gross to know that the ingredient keeping that chili meat from clumping together is the same thing you sink your toes into at the beach.
Ammonium Sulfate (fertilizer)
Nothing helps mass-produce bread like ammonium sulfate. Unfortunately, nothing fertilizes soil or kills bugs (as a pesticide) like it either. Ammonium sulfate is used as a fertilizer for alkaline soil, and an agricultural spray for water soluble insecticides, herbicides and fungicides. But wait, how does it get into our food? Ammonium sulfate is also sold by chemical companies to food manufacturers as “yeast food for bread,” and many fast-food companies list it as an ingredient in their bakery products. Read more about ammonium sulfate and other nasty bread additives here.