Unfortunately, gross food has become the norm in most supermarkets, with packaged food ingredient lists reading more like chemistry homework than something you'd want your family to eat. But in many cases, marketers have figured out a way to keep toxic additives and disease-promoting food packaging off of the label, making your job as a consumer harder than ever. We're here to clear up the confusion and help you avoid some of the grossest foods on the market.
What it is: The toxic flame retardant chemical brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, was initially used to keep plastics from catching on fire.
Where it is: For decades, the food industry has been adding it to certain sodas, juices, and sports drinks, including Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, Sunkist Pineapple, and some Powerade flavors. (Gatorade announced it would remove the compound from its drinks in Spring 2013.) BVO's purpose? To keep the artificial flavoring chemicals from separating from the rest of the liquids.
Why it's bad: Scientists have linked too much BVO to bromide poisoning symptoms like skin lesions, memory loss, and nerve disorders.
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What it is: Titanium dioxide is an inorganic compound, a mined substance that is sometimes contaminated with toxic lead.
Where it is: Commonly used in paints and sunscreens, big food corporations add it to lots of things we eat, too, including processed salad dressing, coffee creamers, and icing.
Why it's bad: The food industry adds it to hundreds of products to make dingy, overly processed items appear whiter. "White has long been the symbolic color of 'clean,'" explains food industry insider Bruce Bradley, who shares the tricks, traps, and ploys of big food manufacturers on his blog, BruceBradley.com. "Funny, when you use real food, you don't need any of these crazy additives -- I think I prefer the real deal."
What it is: Maggots are fly larvae, tiny rice-shaped creatures that feast on rotting foods.
Where it is: The Food and Drug Administration legally allows 19 maggots and 74 mites in a 3.5-ounce can of mushrooms.
Why it's bad: While maggots do have their place in the medical world—they can help heal ulcers and other wounds—most people think it's pretty gross to eat them!
If you need another reason to ditch canned goods, consider this: Most are lined with bisphenol A, or BPA, a plastic chemical that causes unnatural hormonal changes linked to heart attacks, obesity, and certain cancers.
What it is: Traditionally, cheese makers used rennet derived from the mucosa of a veal calf's fourth stomach to create the beloved, versatile dairy product. But Bradley notes that cost and the limited availability of calf stomachs have led to the development of several alternatives, including vegetable rennet, microbial rennet, and—the food industry's rennet of choice -- a genetically modified version derived from a cloned calf gene.
Where it is: It's used to make the vast majority of cheese sold in the United States.
Why it's bad: The long-term health effects of eating genetically engineered foods has never been studied in humans. And since GMO ingredients aren't listed on the label, it can be tough for consumers to avoid rennet from this source. "With all these rennet varieties often listed simply as "enzymes" on an ingredient panel, it can be very hard to know exactly what kind you're eating when you buy cheese," says Bradley, author of the soon-to-be-released book, Fat Profits.
What it is: Grocery store meats are commonly infused with veterinary medicines, heavy metals, and staph bacteria, including the hard-to-kill, potentially lethal MRSA strain.
Where it is: Unfortunately, the problem is far from rare. A study published last year in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases found that half of grocery store meat tested harbored staph bacteria. Researchers ID the overuse of antibiotics in industrial agriculture as a major cause in the rise of superbugs in our grocery store food.
Why it's bad: MRSA kills about 19,000 people a year in America -- that's more annual deaths than from AIDS in the U.S. Purchasing grass-fed meat and eggs from organic farmers is a more sustainable choice.
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What it is: Glyphosate, the active chemical ingredient in the popular weed killer, Roundup, is a hormone-disrupting chemical now used primarily on corn and soy crops genetically engineered to withstand a heavy dousing of the chemical. Nonorganic farmers dumped 57 million pounds of glyphosate on food crops in 2009, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures.
Where it is: Roundup is so heavily used around homes and in farm fields that it's now being detected in streams, the air, and even rain. Because it's a systemic herbicide, it's actually taken up inside the plant ... meaning we eat it. Yep, it's legally allowed in our food, and in an amount that worries scientists. It's found in most nonorganic packaged foods because most contain corn- or soy-derived ingredients, the crops that are most often heavily doused with Roundup.
Why it's bad: Glyphosate exposure is linked to obesity, learning disabilities, birth defects, infertility and potentially irreversible metabolic damage. To avoid pesticides in products, eat organic and avoided processed foods as much as possible. And use caution -- "all natural" foods often are chockfull of pesticides and genetically engineered ingredients.
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What it is: It's a bitter, smelly, orange-brown substance known as castoreum, explains Bradley. "In nature, it's combined with the beaver's urine and used to mark its territory."
Where it is: It's used extensively in processed food and beverages, typically as vanilla or raspberry flavoring.
Why it's bad: This gross ingredient won't show up on the label. Instead, companies using it in making processed food list it as "natural flavoring." This poses a dilemma for vegans and vegetarians -- and anyone who wants to avoid eating any creature's anal excretions.
What it is: Today's cows produce double the amount of milk they did just 40 years ago, thanks largely to a genetically engineered, synthetic hormone called recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST.
Where it is: It could be in milk that's not organic or not labeled as rBST free.
Why it's bad: Scientists link rBST to prostate, breast, and colon cancers. It's banned in other countries, and although still legal here, many dairies are moving away from it due to consumer demand. Choose organic milk to ensure that the cows producing your milk are fed a diet free of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides.
What it is: Phthalates are plasticizing chemicals used in everything from pesticides and fragranced soaps and shampoos to nail polish and vinyl shower curtains.
Where it is: A 2010 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found phthalates are winding up in our food, too. The source could be direct exposure to pesticides containing the hormone-disrupting chemical. Or to another potential source, human sewage sludge applied as a fertilizer to farm fields. The sludge can be tainted with shampoo chemicals that wash down the drain -- it all winds up at the water-treatment plant, the source of the sludge. (Note: Use of human sewage sludge is banned in organic farming.)
Why it's bad: Phthalate exposure, even in small amounts, has been linked to behavioral problems in children, allergies and asthma, eczema, and unhealthy changes in our hormonal systems.
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What it is: L-cysteine is a non-essential amino acid made from dissolved human hair (often from China) or duck feathers.
Where it is: It's used as a commercial dough conditioner to improve the texture of breads and baked goods.
Why it's bad: Eating something derived from the human body violates Muslim beliefs. Hair and duck feathers pose an ethical dilemma for vegans, too.
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What it is: Carmine, a bright red food colorant, is actually the crushed abdomen of the female Dactylopius coccus, an African beetle-like insect.
Where it is: Look for it in red candies and red-tinted yogurts and juices (particularly ruby red juices) -- it's often listed as carmine, crimson lake, cochineal, or natural red #4 on ingredient labels, according to Bradley.
Why it's bad: Not only is the thought of eating bug juice gross, but it also poses an ethical issue for some vegetarians and vegans.
What it is: Factory-farm conditions are rife with bacteria. On top of that, processing plants mix meat from hundreds or thousands of different cows, potentially creating a public health hazard in the mix. To try to make the meat "safer," industry typically puts the beef through an ammonia gas bath.
Where it is: The USDA deems the gross process safe enough, and allows the meat to be sold without any indication that it received the gas treatment. (The process is banned in meats earning organic certification.)
Why it's bad: You might order your burger with pickles or lettuce, but you likely don't want a side of ammonia, a poisonous gas. The kicker? Evidence suggests that blasting beef with it might not even be fully effective at killing germs. Look for organic, pasture-raised meats for a safer option. Often, you can buy these meats directly from local, sustainable farmers.
What it is:Many artificial food dyes found in hundreds of everyday foods are made from petroleum-derived materials.
Where it is: Dyes are used in cereals and candy to make them more "fun" for kids, in pickles to make them appear fresher, and in place of actual real ingredients in a variety of foods. Example? Betty Crocker Carrot Cake Mix is actually a carrot-free product, with "carrot flavored pieces" cooked up from corn syrup and artificial colors Yellow 6 and Red 40.
Why it's bad: Orange and purple food dyes have been shown to impair brain function, while other dyes have been linked to ADHD and behavioral problems in kids and brain cell toxicity. You're getting ripped off, too. It's cheaper for food companies to use fake dyes than real ingredients. (Tropicana Twister Cherry Berry Blast contains 0 percent berry and cherry juice, despite its name.)
What it is: Depending on where your shrimp comes from, it could be tainted with chemicals used to clean filthy shrimp farm pens. Just as gross, farmed shrimp from overseas is often full of antibiotics, mouse and rat hair, and pieces of insects.
Where it is: Contaminated shrimp tends to come from critters imported from overseas shrimp farms. If you're looking for safer options, choose domestic shrimp. For the best options, consult the good fish list.
Why it's bad: Only about 2 percent of all imported seafood is inspected, meaning this nasty stuff is making its way onto your plate.
What it is: An industrial nonstick chemical that falls under the perfluorinated chemicals class is utilized in certain food packaging.
Where it is: These suspect chemicals are commonly used to coat the inside of popcorn bags to prevent sticking and grease leakage. The same chemicals are also in the nonstick coating of many pots, pans and baking sheets.
Why it's bad: A study published in January 2012 in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that nonstick chemicals in popcorn bags significantly damage the immune system, opening the floodgates for a whole host of other health problems. Nonstick chemicals are also linked to high cholesterol, sperm damage and infertility, and ADHD. Popcorn -- made the good old-fashioned way, in a pot on the stovetop -- is still a great option.