5 Strange Natural Food Additives

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The ingredients in the food we eat have changed dramatically in recent years. Consumers have requested — and food companies have produced — organic and low-fat foods, gluten-free products and foods with no trans fats. These changes have been made with health-related issues in mind. But what about foods made with ingredients that may be perfectly healthy but just sound gross? Will consumers demand changes, and will the food industry accommodate them? That happened a few years ago, when a consumer backlash led several fast-food chains to stop using “Pink Slime,” or meat scraps treated with ammonia. Perhaps similar efforts will arise to get rid of some of the following strange natural additives. Or maybe not, as many people actually prefer these weird additives to synthetic alternatives.


5. Castoreum (Beaver Anal Gland Secretions)

Beaver secretions are used as a food flavoring.

A secretion used by beavers to mark their territory is a common food flavoring.

Beavers mark their territory by secreting this pungent, yellowish liquid from their anal glands. For some reason, an unknown food company — probably operating in a state with a heavy beaver population — thought this might be a great flavoring for food. Talk about a leap of faith. Today, castoreum is commonly used to add artificial vanilla, strawberry and raspberry flavoring to drinks and processed foods. Some people are troubled that castoreum is labeled as “natural flavoring,” which certainly sounds healthy … but it’s really beaver anal gland juice. Oh, it’s also used extensively in perfumes. Castoreum is probably not going away anytime soon, as it’s been used as a food additive for more than 80 years.


4. Silicon Dioxide

Sand makes a great anti-caking agent in many foods.

A climber takes on a hill at Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve in Colorado. © Jeff Taylor

You definitely know this by its more common usage term: sand. Why put sand in food? Turns out it’s an effective anti-caking agent that resists humidity. It’s used in everything from shredded cheeses and soups to salts and powdered creamers. Just think of it as extra roughage for your diet.


3. Shellac

Shellac is used to give many candies a glazed appearance.

A branch covered with secretions from a lac bug. © Jeffrey W. Lotz

A secretion of the female lac bug, a beetle-like insect native to Southeast Asia, shellac is best known as a varnish for wood floors and other wood products. But the resin-like substance is widely used as a finishing glaze on jelly beans, hard candies and sprinkles, under the label “Confectioner’s glaze.”


2. Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide is listed as a possible human carcinogen.

Titanium oxide is used as an artificial white coloring in many foods.

Although titanium dioxide is most commonly used in sunscreens, it is also used as a white coloring in skim milk, gum, candies and in vitamins and supplements. This troubles many health advocates, as titanium dioxide has been classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as a possible carcinogen for humans.


1. Carmine or Cochineal Extract (Crushed Insects)

Cochineal has been used an artificial coloring for centuries.

The cochineal, a small parasitic insect that lives on cacti, is used for red food coloring. © Steve/7-how-7

A food coloring used in numerous products, from ice cream to sausages, carmine is extracted from cochineal, a cactus-dwelling insect native to Central and South America. Despite the fact cochineal has been used for hundreds of years as an artificial coloring, some people don’t relish the thought of eating crushed insects. In fact, Starbucks angered some customers in early 2013 when word spread that the company had used cochineal extract to replace artificial coloring in its Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino. Starbucks bowed to consumer pressure and replaced the coloring with a tomato-based dye. No wonder the food industry fought efforts several years ago by the FDA to require foods containing cochineal to add the term “insect-based.” Yet despite the potential gross-out factor cochineal induces in some people, it is making a comeback in the marketplace, as a replacement for artificial flavoring perceived as less safe.


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