The Unsavory Ingredients Hiding in Your Favorite Foods

By Ashar Mohammed

What makes jellybeans shiny, why does packaged bread stay fresh for weeks, and which condiment should you save for dessert? Here is the scoop.

We live in a time of information overload. Facts are at our fingertips. Any day, any time we can learn more and find deeper truths about things that are important to us.

In the past decade or so, food has become a hot topic of conversation in many circles: where it originated, how it is made, varying alternatives, which recipes suit certain foods best, and more. Why? Because food is fun! It’s part of our everyday lives. Food gives us energy and brings people together.

Food, in a sense, is life. Or at least part of it. And, as is true with many things in life, there are often some hidden, disturbing truths. Food is no exception. Sometimes food has secrets, especially foods that many of us consider favorites.They are sometimes sweet, sometimes an occasional expensive treat, and sometimes even full of childhood memories.

It’s easy to turn a blind eye to the ingredient list on our favorite foods, but knowledge is power. Take a peek at the list below and see if one of your favorite foods is hiding a secret you may not know.

Shredded cheese is more than just cheese. Our grandmothers would probably balk at the laziness that is shredded cheese. (Or jump for joy at the genius of skipping such a muscle-heavy preparation step.) But did you know that shredded cheese is mixed with cellulose to keep it from clumping?

Cellulose is refined wood pulp. That’s right. Eating pre-shredded cheese means you’re also munching on itsy bitsy pieces of wood. No wonder I once heard renowned cook Ree Drummond say on her TV show, “The Pioneer Woman,” that it is practically a crime not to shred your own cheese! She’s just trying to save us from wood pulp…and bring a little exercise routine into the kitchen. Since I learned this, my arm muscles are stronger!

Your butcher might be gluing your steaks together. “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 laying around the 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.

There is something not-so-sweet in Oreos. I will confess that my college days were full of Oreos. Dipped in milk, topped with a dollop of peanut butter, or crushed into a batch of homemade brownies, Oreos were staple in my life. But there is something I (and I bet you) didn’t know about Oreos, specifically that perfect crème filling. Retired nutrition consultant Alissa Helton shares with HealthyWay that “The main ingredient in Oreo filling is the commercial version of Crisco!”

No wonder it’s so smooth! Why is this ingredient a concern? Helton has the scoop: “Crisco or ‘vegetable shortening’ is highly processed and made from ingredients that are typically genetically modified (soy and palm fruit which, incidentally, are not vegetables), and it is hydrogenated (hydrogen is bubbled through the oil at high temperature to make it solid at room temperature).

“The end result is a food-like product that might have made for good soap and candles in 1911, back when the meat industry controlled the price of the critical lard needed for soap and candle making, but is hardly suitable as a food source today!”

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. 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.

Wasps probably love figs more than you do. Arthur Gillett, cofounder and head of research for HowGood, an independent research organization that aims to determine the overall sustainability of food, shares: “There is a digested queen wasp in every open pollinated fig.”

Which means, yes, if you’ve eaten a fig, you have also eaten a wasp…or what once was a wasp. It all begins with the pollination process. There are both male and female fig plants, and in conjunction with the fig wasp they participate in mutualism, meaning that they rely on each other to exist. When pollinating begins, a female wasp enters a female fig plant, breaking off her antennae and wings in the process.

There she births her larvae and dies because the structure of the plant doesn’t allow her to exit. The fig plant digests her body, and the remaining wasp protein is now part of the fig fruit.

Chocolate is breaking hearts. I’ve long been a chocolate lover—and I know some of you can relate. But there is a long-standing concern when it comes to sourcing in the chocolate industry. Most of this worry is based in the raising and harvesting of cocoa in West Africa. In and of itself, that isn’t a bad thing. Sourcing ingredients from their prime location is part of our global economy; however, what should not be part of global economy is human rights abuses. According to the Food Empowerment Project, the chocolate industry is marked by child slavery.

I know. My hankering for a candy bar is disappearing at the thought too. So before you buy your next chocolate treat, do a little research. There is amazing, high-quality chocolate available—just look for fair trade chocolate, and you’ll know where to begin sampling the good stuff.

Avoid this Seaweed. Not everyone loves to read labels. Especially when they’re full of generic food terms, unpronounceable additives, and other mysteries. But, pause with me now, and walk over to your freezer. Grab a container of ice cream and glance at the ingredient list. You probably see milk and sugar and ingredients specific to the flavoring, but do you also see carrageenan? This is a popular setting agent in desserts like ice cream and gelato. Now, where does carrageenan come from, you ask? It’s derived from seaweed!

According to Sally Morgan, a holistic physical therapist and cancer survivor, carrageenan has been linked to a number of illnesses including cancer. So, if you’re being mindful about cancer prevention and aiming to avoid potentially harmful ingredients, do your best to find an ice cream that does not list carrageenan in the ingredients.

Jellybeans don’t shine by themselves. Jellybeans are appealing for a few reasons. Talk about fun colors and amazing flavors! And that shiny coating is pretty tempting, especially with that first bite when you crunch through and experience the soft “jelly” explosion. But did you know that that shiny coating, often referred to as shellac, is derived from a bug? That’s right, shellac, the same composition that makes floors extra shiny, is made from a Southeast Asian bug’s resinous secretion. I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that bug secretions aren’t usually on my list of favorite things!

Are we 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.

Ranch dressing is a cousin with what? Well, they are not true cousins! However, if you compare the ingredient lists of most commercial ranch dressings and sunscreen you will find that titanium dioxide is in both. Actually, titanium dioxide, which is derived from the metal titanium, is found in many items we use daily, because its white pigment is very bright and, thus, very appealing when it comes to presentation in things like paint, medicine, food, paper and skincare products. The safety concerns of titanium dioxide, especially as a food ingredient, are controversial. We are sure to hear more about this in the years to come as emerging research is presented.

Coffee creamer is missing one important ingredient. Time to meander back to the refrigerator. Find your favorite coffee creamer and scan the ingredient list. Is something missing? There is on mine! There is no cream listed! No real, true cream in the coffee creamer? What gives? No wonder Pinterest is full of “make your own coffee creamer” recipes, and my grandma always opted for basic cream and sugar.

Maybe save that ketchup for after dinner…Was ketchup a childhood staple for you? Is it still your favorite dipping sauce? Well, it’s no wonder! Abraham Kamarck of True Made Foods, a company that aims to naturally sweeten its products with sweet vegetables, revealed that, “cup vs. cup, ketchup has 21 more grams of sugar than vanilla ice cream. Three servings of ketchup (3x tablespoons) has more sugar than a Krispy Kreme doughnut (12 g).”

Armed with that information it looks like I need to find myself less sugary ketchup or perhaps research a new dipping sauce to fall in love with. I’d much rather eat my allotment of sugar in doughnut form, thank you very much!

If you’re going to eat chips, these are your best bet. If regular Fritos are a favorite of yours, don’t be alarmed. Jasmine Himes, a fitness instructor and nutrition student says, “Fritos have always only have 3 ingredients…corn, salt and oil. That makes them my chip of choice.” Yes, back to the basics! And in this case, the basics are quite delicious.

Does kombucha live up to the hype? Have a friend who is constantly guzzling kombucha, claiming it’s like a “healthy” soda, but 10 times better? Before you jump on the kombucha bandwagon, take into account this insight from nutritional therapist Nichole Eliason: “Kombucha contains beneficial probiotic bacteria for the gut microbiome, but its yeast-like strain can cause individuals with mold exposure illness or fungal infections to experience systemic inflammation and elevated liver enzymes. It can also worsen symptoms of post infectious irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) due to adding to the overgrowth in the small intestine. To define ‘healthy food’ it all comes down to bio individual needs.”

So, although kombucha can be beneficial to your gut, it isn’t necessarily for everyone.

Wrapping It Up

Did this list make you questions one of your favorite foods? That’s okay! Just because you have some behind-the-scenes information on a food you love doesn’t mean it has to be blacklisted from your fridge or pantry. Everyone deserves a little indulgence on occasion.

With this new knowledge, all you need to do is monitor how often your favorite food finds its way onto your kitchen table. Let the stories behind chocolate, ranch dressing, kombucha, and more lead you to find balance.

Give your purchases a little more thought, dig into those ingredient lists, and share what you find with those around you. Being a more educated consumer is better for us all.

Ashar Mohammed is Nutritionist, Networking Business Coach, NLP Practitioner, Life Coach, and the author of Home Work Out Bible and Healthy Eating. After earning a MBA, Ashar worked in business for his family and on his own for 13 years, until becoming a coach in 2015. Now pursuing his true passion, Ashar has helped thousands of people around the world to achieve their freedom—freedom from disease, freedom of time, and travel and financial freedom. For more information, visit his blog at

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