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 seven of the grossest foods on the market. (Attention tomato enthusiasts: Check out Rodale's Epic Tomatoes, the ultimate guide to growing more than 200 varieties!)
The toxic flame retardant chemical brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, was initially used to keep plastics from catching on fire. 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 Gatorade and Powerade flavors. BVO's purpose is to keep the artificial flavoring chemicals from separating from the rest of the liquids—but scientists have linked too much BVO to bromide poisoning symptoms like skin lesions, memory loss, and nerve disorders.
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Titanium dioxide is a component of the metallic element titanium, a mined substance that is sometimes contaminated with toxic lead. 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. 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."
Maggots are fly larvae—tiny rice-shaped creatures that feast on rotting foods. The Food and Drug Administration legally allows 19 maggots and 74 mites in a 3.5-ounce can of mushrooms. 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.
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. It's used to make the vast majority of cheese sold in the United States. 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 Fat Profits.
Grocery store meats are commonly infused with veterinary medicines, heavy metals, and staph bacteria, including the hard-to-kill, potentially lethal MRSA strain. Unfortunately, the problem is far from rare. A study published 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. 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.
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. 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—and 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. 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.
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." It's used extensively in processed food and beverages, typically as vanilla or raspberry flavoring. 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, vegetarians, and anyone who wants to avoid eating any creature's anal excretions.