Warning: If you have a weak stomach, simply love eating chocolate, ice cream or burgers, or prefer to remain ignorant of the problems in our commercial food industry, read no further. This column is about to get a little hairy. Literally.
But it’s not going to stop at hairy — it’s also going to get slimy, pulverized, poisoned and infested. The worst part is, whether you decide to read this column, you’re not going to be able to avoid it.
You might choose to ignore the bugs, chemicals and animal bits in your lunch — I know I have — but with all of the recent coverage of “pink slime,” exposÃ©s on factory farming and articles divulging exactly what goes in to all of that red food dye, I for one have found myself unable to forget exactly what lines (and beaver glands) the commercial food industry is trying to feed me.
My eating habits have been in flux since I saw the documentary “Food Inc.” at 16; I stopped eating red meat, then white meat, started eating seafood and finally just settled on a vegetarian lifestyle. I started frequenting farmer’s markets in the summer and co-ops in the winter, eating organic and local. I also recently planted my first vegetable garden using seeds that have not been genetically modified. My parents think I’m crazy, and you might think so too. I would say I’m just hyper-aware of what I put in my body.
But this column really isn’t a vegan manifesto or even an indictment of all foods conventional. It’s simply a reminder of what you’re actually eating on a day-to-day basis. It’s also my way of pressuring the FDA for stricter food labeling practices.
Here’s where my most recent adventure in food industry criticism began: I was sent a link, via one social networking site or another, to an online petition urging Starbucks to stop using cochineal extract as a red pigment in their strawberry flavored drinks. Curious about why it mattered, I followed the link. And then I nearly vomited. As it turns out, cochineal extract is made of crushed cochineal beetles. The dye can also be found in certain red and pink yogurts, jams and tomato products, to name a few.
I was disgusted, but my curiosity wasn’t quite satiated so I Googled “cochineal extract” and found a recent article that cited the same petition and added a few facts that I almost regret reading. It’s estimated that with the amount of red dye that the average person consumes in their lifetime, they will have eaten at least 70,000 beetles in food pigment alone. And you know that friend in middle school that was allergic to red food dye? It’s not actually a chemical she was allergic to — it’s the bugs.
Despite feeling a little overwhelmed with this knowledge, I read a little further. Most people who are allergic to chocolate? This is also due to bug parts. The FDA contends that up to 60 insect parts per 100 grams of chocolate is safe. Certain ice cream flavors are enhanced with castoreum, a mixture of beaver anal secretions. More often than not there are maggots in your canned mushrooms. Isinglass, used to make some beers golden in color, is made from dried fish bladders. The same chemicals put in toilet bowl cleaner are also used to extend the shelf life of foods like potato chips.
And let’s not forget some of the gross food facts that are common knowledge: Cheese is injected with bacteria that naturally thrive in the stomach lining of milk producing animals, and gelatin, the gooey stuff in our marshmallows and gummy candies, is made of mammalian connective tissue.
What’s worse is that most of these ingredients go unlabeled or undisclosed, so you can’t always avoid them. Bugs bugging you too? Tell it to the FDA.