15 Terrifying Things You Never Knew Were in Your Food

Laurel Pinson

We spend a lot of time worrying about healthy foods that can actually make you fat, or whether to engage in health fads like Paleo diets or oil pulling, but sometimes it’s the things right under your nose that should be getting the most attention.

For example, you’d be amazed at the kind of toxic chemicals and cringe-worthy substances that are often found in the foods you eat every day—from the vegetables at your grocery store to the snacks you’re eating at your office. Some are both horrifying and terrible for your health, while others are straight-up gross—even if they won’t necessarily do your body any harm.

Read on at your own risk …

Weed Killer:

Round-Up, an herbicide that’s been shown to be deadly to human cells, can be detected in a ton of produce. In a nutshell, non-organic vegetables you’ll find in your local grocery store may still remnants on ’em.  Studies have actually shown that this concoction may be linked to cancer, birth defects, and a host of other problems, giving you yet another reason to shop for organic vegetables if you can. At a minimum, make sure you wash those veggies thoroughly!

This chemical is used in a lot of cleaning products that kill surface bacteria, and it’s also apparently used on animal meat trimmings, which are particularly susceptible to bacteria. Maybe you’ve heard of that “pink slime” that’s used as a filler in some ground beef? Yep, that’s the stuff. Bottom line, if you want to avoid even a whisper of chemicals in your meat, opt for truly high-quality meat (ideally free-range and antibiotic-free!) from specialty stores. Good meat’s worth paying for!

Surprise! There are weird, microscopic things in your food—especially in the dairy aisle, apparently. Tom Philpott of “Mother Jones” went through the Project on Emerging Technologies’ list of nano consumer products and found 96 foods with unlabeled nano particles like titanium dioxide, which is evidently an ingredient that brands like Dannon use to make Greek yogurt whiter. Eep!

Beavers’ Glandular Secretions:
We know, right? This one’s a real doozy. Castoreum is a chemical sourced from glands of beavers that’s often found in vanilla-flavored snacks that (surprise) don’t actually contain any vanilla extract. The beavers use these secretions as a way to make their territory—we use it to flavor things in a way that’s “natural,” even if it’s truly icky. (It really does smell like vanilla!)

Chemical Preservatives
Tertiary Butylhydroquinone (try saying that five times, fast!) is a preservative that can be found in everything from pet foods and skincare products to, yes, chicken nuggets (along with a lot of fast food products). We’re sure you’ve already heard that preservatives really aren’t good for you: Consuming the product in high doses (read: one gram) has been linked to a host of medical problems like nausea, asthma, and even cancer.

Are you a person who prefers holistic remedies to prescription pills when you’re feeling sick? Well, guess what: You may be consuming antibiotics without even realizing it … through the meat you’re eating. Livestock like turkey, cows, and chickens are often treated with antibiotics to help them get bigger, faster (and without getting sick), but those antibiotics may then be getting passed on to you, possibly fueling the spread of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. (Here’s a really scary statistic: antibiotic sales for use in animals are three times more than sales for human use.) Make a habit of checking the labels on your meat, and make sure they’re antibiotic and hormone-free!

Insect Chemicals:
Carmine is a chemical that’s often found in foods that are dyed red, like red velvet cake and jelly donuts. Creepier still: the chemical is derived from red beetles, and up until recently, food companies didn’t even have to list it as an ingredient.

Brominated Vegetable Oil
This flame-retardant chemical is often found in citrus-flavored drinks like Fanta, Gatorade, or Mountain Dew. Not only can the chemical possibly raise cholesterol, it may also lead to nerve disorders and memory loss.

According to Prevention, researchers from Johns Hopkins University at one point tested poultry bird feathers and found a slew of additives including antibiotics, allergy medications, and, yes, antidepressants. It’s no surprise, considering we already know that antibiotics and antimicrobials are used a ton in livestock, but it’s jut another reason to watch for labels on your meat and opt for high-quality poultry wherever you can!

Phthalates are chemicals that can be found in everything from pesticides to shampoo, and, as it turns out, our food. There are a slew of possible ways that these compounds could end up in our food—from pesticides on human waste (read: everything that goes down our various drains) being used as fertilizer. Delightful!

Cow Enzymes:
Rennet is a compound commonly used in cheese that contains an enzyme that’s extracted from the fourth stomach of newborn calves. It goes without saying that some cheese products are packed with icky ingredients—processed cheeses like American Cheese are especially nefarious—so be sure to check food labels for any ingredient listed simply as “enzymes” if you want to avoid the gross-out factor.

Antifreeze Components:
Propylene Glycol is a chemical that’s also found in antifreeze, but before you get too freaked, it’s pretty dang safe (though it does have an “ick” factor). Propylene Glycol is used in things like soda, beer, and dressings to help keep combinations of ingredients well-mixed.

Silicon Dioxide, aka Silica:
Silica is kind of a fancy word for sand, or a ground-down mineral. (It’s most commonly found in quartz.) You’ll find it as an additive in all sorts of things—from table salt to soups. There’s really nothing bad about it—heck, there are minerals in all kinds of things—but … weird, right?

Titanium Dioxide:
Titanium Dioxide is a chemical that’s used to make white things whiter—which explains why it’s found in stuff like white paint. Of course, food manufacturers are also often looking to make their white foods brighter, which explains why you can also find the stuff in products like ranch dressing, mayonnaise, and skim milk. If that doesn’t already make you feel a little skeeved out, the compound has also been classified as “possibly carcinogen to humans.” Yum!

This shiny substance is actually derived from the secretions of an insect native to Thailand, and it makes candy like jelly beans look nice and shiny. Since it’s technically insect-derived, it’s kind of natural … right?