Beaver Glands, Beetles, and Other Surprising Ingredients in Your Favorite Foods


Jillian Cooper/istockphoto

Cheapism is editorially independent. We may earn a commission if you buy through links on our site.
Woman looking at labels while shopping
Victoria Labadie - Fotonomada/istockphoto

What's Cooking

While consumers are increasingly label- and ingredient-conscious when making food purchases, there are still plenty of items on the market with ingredients most people would find shocking or downright disgusting. Food coloring made from crushed beetles, anyone? Yes, it's a real thing. Here's a closer look at just some of the surprising stuff being used to make popular foods. (Curious about unusual ingredients that you might actually like? Check out these Strange But Surprisingly Tasty Local Foods.)

Related: Meaningless Nutritional Claims by Some of Your Favorite Foods

Red Wine

Fish Bladders

It may be shocking to wine connoisseurs everywhere (or not) that some vintners use isinglass, a gelatin derived from the swim bladders of sturgeons, during the fining process. In other words, it is used to make the wine clear and to remove particulates — meaning some wines may not be vegan. 

Related: How to Spot a Good, Cheap Bottle of Wine



Can't pronounce it? Join the club. Carrie Roberts, founder and chief executive of Sift Food Labels, an app that helps translate food ingredients in simple terms, says azodicarbonamide is a dough conditioner used in breads to make it lighter and fluffier. There are also less appetizing uses for this chemical that may leave you thinking twice. "Azodicarbonamide is also used as a chemical in yoga mats and rubber shoes, and its use is banned in foods across the European Union," Roberts says. Some of the products it can be found in include Wonder's Light Wheat Bread, Sunbeam hot dog buns, and Marie Callender's croissant sandwiches, she says.

Considering making your own bread instead? Here's everything you need to start.

Propylene Glycol

Propylene Glycol

A common preservative found in food to maintain moisture, propylene glycol is considered safe in small doses by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Roberts says, though the World Health Organization has suggested that an individual should not have more than 11.4 mg of it per pound of body weight in a day. "It can be toxic in large quantities. It can also be commonly found in antifreeze and sex lubricants," Roberts says. Among the many food items that contain propylene glycol are Betty Crocker chocolate cake mix, Kraft Greek Feta Vinaigrette Dressing, and Entenmann's Little Bites Fudge Brownie Mini Muffins.

Hair from Ducks, Humans or Pigs


Most often used to varnish furniture, shellac also shows up in candy. Possibly even lesser known: Shellac comes from the "resinous exudate" from a female Indian lac bug. Among the many uses (beyond furniture) found for shellac is stiffening hats and creating buttons. As for food, it is often labeled "confectioner's glaze" and provides some favorite sweets — from jelly beans to ice cream cones — with a glossy sheen.

Related: The Secret History Behind Candy Corn, Jelly Beans, and Other Sweets

Bone Char

Bone Char

Sugar seems like a simple enough food product, but few people realize that the process of making table sugar often involves the boiled-down bones of cattle. (Vegans everywhere, take note.) The process begins with sugar cane stalks that are crushed to gather the juice. Next comes heating the juice and filtering and bleaching it, which is where the bone char comes in — the process creates the sugar's blindingly white coloring.

Related: I Banned Sugar From My Diet for a Week and Here's What Happened



Sand (also known as silicon dioxide) belongs at the beach, not in food, right? It turns out sand can also be a good flow agent in food products, preventing clumping and caking. It has been known to show up in salts, dried soups, and coffee creamer. But manufacturers also use it in glass and cement. While silicone dioxide exists naturally in certain foods — such as dark leafy greens, beets, and alfalfa sprouts, and some grains and cereals — and some studies have shown it to be safe in small doses, other researchers are calling for further investigation and stricter guidelines for its use in food.

Ines Carrara/istockphoto


Crushed beetles, anyone? A common color additive that gives many foods a bright red color, carmine is made from crushing the carcass of a specific South and Central American insect called a cochineal, Roberts says. It can be found in such products as Yoplait strawberry yogurt and Mentos Rainbow Chewy Mints.



The rumors are true: If you're a vegan or vegetarian, avoid Jell-O. The gelatin used for Jell-O and similar products is developed from collagen, which is made typically by boiling animal skin, cartilage, and bones. While the specific type of animal skin varies, gelatin can be found in everything from gummy candies to frosted cereals and yogurt.

Microwave Popcorn


Industrial nonstick chemicals are often used to coat the inside of microwave popcorn bags to stop the grease from leaking. Some using perfluorinated chemicals, however, may not be good for you. A study done by the Journal of the American Medical Association found that PFCs cause immune suppression — and those are the ones the FDA says are already gone or will soon be gone from food packaging.

Gum Takes Seven Years to Digest


Also known as PDMS, this silicone chemical is basically silly putty. Used typically as an anti-foaming and anti-caking agent, PDMS shows up in fast foods and candy, fruit spreads, chewing gum, chocolate, and canned fruits. It is also used in shampoo and caulk.

Jillian Cooper/istockphoto

Brominated Vegetable Oil

Easily one of the most disturbing food items on this list, castoreum is a product derived from the castor sac scent glands of beavers. While it's unclear how the tradition of using excretions from a beaver in food even got started, the resulting food additive is FDA approved. When it's used, which is not often, castoreum might be found in raspberry-flavored foods — often unnoticeable because it is listed as "natural flavoring."

Ditch the Soda
gina lee/

Titanium Dioxide

Long controversial, brominated vegetable oil is a toxic flame retardant often found in carbonated beverages. Otherwise known as BVO, it is banned in Europe but still used to retain citrus flavor in U.S. sodas and other drinks. This ingredient is known to have such effects as irritating skin and mucous membranes, according to the Mayo Clinic. At the extreme, long-term exposure can cause more serious neurologic symptoms such as headache, memory loss, and even impaired balance or coordination.

Guinness Cake
Guinness Cake by Luca Nebuloni (CC BY)

Salt Water Injections

Ever wonder what makes your vanilla icing or coffee creamer so white? In some cases, the answer may be titanium dioxide. A chemical that also turns up in such items as sunscreen, paint, and plastic, titanium dioxide in food has been the subject of much debate. That's because ultrafine titanium dioxide can be a carcinogen, according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — but when you breath it in, not when you eat it.

Beef at the Butcher


While salt water isn't bad for swimming, it may not be something you want (or expect) to find in food. Some manufacturers inject salt water into raw meat to enhance its weight and flavor. How to know if your meat has been injected with salt water? Read the label, which may say the product has been flavored or injected with solution. The amount of solution in the meat can range from about 10% to 35% — not good if you happen to be prone to high blood pressure.

Related: Cheap, Healthy Alternatives to Red and Processed Meat

Inflammatory: Deli Meats

Sodium Bisulfite

Are you a fan of prepackaged deli meats? There's a good chance you're eating bacteriophages, a type of virus that's used to attack bacterial pathogens in foods and is added to an increasing number of them to help prevent food-borne illness, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Potato chips
dr3amer / iStock


Created by combining sulfuric acid with salt, sodium bisulfite has various uses — among them as a toilet bowl cleaner, purifying toxic wastewater, and also as a food preservative. It's used to reduce bacteria growth and browning in food, and can be found in potato chips to keep them fresher longer.

Related: The Least Unhealthy Junk Foods



Those fresh fruits and vegetables that are an important part of every diet may also be an unexpected source of phthalates. A chemical that makes its way onto food primarily through exposure to packaging items such as cellophane, paper, and paper board, phthalates have been linked to reproductive, developmental, and endocrine-related issues.

Cake Mix


Breakfast food and petroleum products may have something in common, as unsettling as that may be. That commonality is the ingredient BHA, or butylated hydroxyanisole. Though the National Institutes of Health has said it can be a human carcinogen, the chemical has been given the FDA stamp of approval for use in foods. It may be found in potato shreds and desserts made from dry mixes.

Shredded Cheese.jpg


Found typically in wood pulp or cotton, cellulose is also sometimes used in shredded cheese to keep it from sticking together, and as an inexpensive filler. It may also be found in some ice creams and drinks, to add fiber content and texture, particularly to low-fat foods. Look for cellulose on ingredient lists under names such as carboxymethylcellulose, microcrystalline cellulose, or MCC. While there are no known harmful side effects to cellulose, which is essentially non-digestible plant fiber, critics are largely concerned with companies using cellulose and improperly labeling it, essentially charging consumers for what amounts to a filler. One solution: Grate your own cheese.



While eating seaweed with sushi is expected, you may be surprised to find out many other foods also contain a form. Listed as carrageenan, a gel extracted from seaweed, it's typically used as a thickening agent in dairy products such as cottage cheese, ice cream, and chocolate milk. It's FDA-approved, and while some scientists (one in particular) say it may cause inflammation and digestive problems, those conclusions have largely been debunked by the scientific community and carrageenan is widely considered safe. Though it's presence in ice cream and other treats is likely still surprising to many consumers, nonetheless.