The strangest things in our food


We know when we view the list of ingredients on the rear of a package we’re not going to recognise all of them. Sometimes it’s because the descriptions are vague, and sometimes it’s because they only give us a number, which requires additional research that most of us don’t have time to conduct. Occasionally the wording throws us out, though – especially when we hear the word “natural” next to it. We tend not to think too much about what kind of natural that might be. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily harmful, but it might just mean you’d rather not know – because it’s actually kind of gross or weird or unpleasant to think about. Still want to read on? Okay, but don’t say we didn’t warn you!

bread factory
Bread – There’s A Hair in There

Amino acids are tiny protein chains that help to build your body. Although the body requires 20 different kinds of amino acids in order to function normally, one in particular has been isolated for its textual properties and ability to prolong shelf-life in bread. This amino acid is known in the food chemistry biz as L-Cysteine, which sounds perfectly innocuous until you realise it is sourced from duck feathers, or human hair – usually off cuts from Chinese barbershops. They are then boiled or stewed in a sterilising solution. We don’t know if it’s better pre or post-shampoo, but if this is too much for your stomach to handle, just buy a fresh loaf from your local baker rather than a springy bun from your local fast-food outlet.

beer fishImage source

Fish Swim Bladders in Your Beer

It may seem like a fishy tale, but purified fish swim bladders have proved a useful tool in the clarification of beer since the Romans were a global power, and its use became widespread in the 18th century during a burst of commercialisation.

More palatably known as “isinglass”, this ocean-derived product that is used by (living) fish to control swimming depth produces a clarity that would otherwise be left unattractively opaque or hazy due to the yeast fermenting process. If left alone for long enough, this sedimentation would eventually take place through natural “secondary” fermentation processes, but time is money, and when thirsty mouths are calling out for refills, the bartender has no time to spare. Considering that long ago, our alcohol was stored in dried animal skins, the dried and sterilised swim bladders seem decidedly inoffensive. And really, it’s just part of a process – you’re not actually munching down on them. Another pint over here, please.

sandy beachImage source

Sand – Bringing the Beach to Your Pantry

Silicon dioxide, better known as the largest component in sand and quartz, has long been known for its usefulness as an anti-caking agent. What this essentially does is prevents other ingredients from sticking together to form a lump. Remember in your early days, before you owned a flour sieve, when those white lumps would form in your sauce and you’d have to fish them out with a fork? Well, silicon dioxide is the sophisticated version of that fork. But who doesn’t love lying down on sand, and what kid hasn’t had a little taste just out of curiosity? Relax – it’ harmless, but if you feel gritty just thinking about it, just stay away from pre-packaged biscuits and cakes.

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Bug juice – are you reddy for this?

Ever heard of the natural food colouring carmine, also called cochineal extract or, more commonly now, natural red #4? For a population that isn’t enamoured with the idea of eating bugs or insects (hyperlink to recent blog), it may come as a shock to learn that good old number four is the juice of the female cochineal bug, a creepy-crawly once used by the Aztecs in South America to produce vibrant red fabrics. Its use as a food additive came quite some time later, but most of it is still sourced in the same region, particularly in Peru, where their natural habitat of cacti plantations are abundant. The bugs are crushed and acidified before being turned into a bright red substance, and provide beautiful colours at children’s parties everywhere. Because severe allergic reactions are possible, you’ll always be able to identify this ingredient on a label, provided you know what you’re looking for.

Leave it to beaver

It’s actually an ethical dilemma to decide whether to tell you this or not, but since the overriding wisdom is that knowledge is power, we’ll tentatively break it to you. But brace yourself – remember the day you found out about Saint Nick? It might be worse. Much, much worse. Vanilla, the most universally loved flavour on this little blue planet, has more than one source. There’s the wholesome vanilla bean, sweet and spicy to the smell, and gorgeous to cook with. Then there’s beaver butt. There’s no other way to say it. Known as castoreum, it’s obtained from small glands adjacent to the beaver’s anus, and we’re told the secretions, which are kind of thick and sticky, actually smell pretty good. It’s why food scientists commonly use it as a vanilla substitute, and call it something bland – such as castoreum. But before you quit food altogether in disgust, here’s food for thought (or two thoughts for food): First, think of the poor fellow whose job it is to squeeze those glands. And second, look at how cute they are! They’re so adorable you could just about eat them.

While we want you to be mindful of what you put in your mouth and incorporate loads of fresh, seasonal produce in your varied diet, we also know that the occasional treat is unavoidable. Chances are you’ve eaten all of these things before, and maybe you’ll even do it again! The important thing is that your health should always come first, so compare private health insurance providers sooner rather than later so you can begin to reap the benefits of professional advice from nutritionists and dieticians. Be sure to check the extras so you get the plan that best suits you!


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