Do you really know what you’re eating? (Photo: Getty Images)
Most of us aren’t aware of the thousands of bizarre chemicals that regularly make their way into our mouths, from all-natural drinks like tap water to the synthesized substitutes in energy bars. From red algae to beaver gland secretions, here are some of the craziest things we eat every day:
Thymol In Mouthwash
(Photo: Getty Images)
This plant extract is a member of the phenol family, the Genghis Khan of the bacterial world. Phenols like this kill germs by pillaging the structural units from the inner and outer cell membranes, causing the bacteria’s cytoplasm to leak out and die. Thymol, obtained from thyme or oregano, is so strong an antimicrobial that ancient Egyptians (and mid-century embalmers) used it to preserve their mummies.
Red Algae In Packaged Fruit Pies
Remember back in high school biology class, when you cultured bacteria on an agar medium in petri dishes? This is the same stuff. It’s actually a gelatinous preparation of the cell walls of red algae, used to thicken the fruit filling in packaged dessert pies. On ingredient labels, it’s sometimes called red seaweed, likely because the idea of ingesting seaweed is somewhat palatable (think sushi). Eating red algae, on the other hand, seems way more disgusting.
Gum Base In Chewing Gum
(Photo: Flickr/Hernán Piñera)
Ever hear NASCAR drivers refer to practice tires as “gumballs”? Chewing gum used to be made from the sap of manilkara trees, but now the chew factor often comes from styrene-butadiene, the same petrochemical rubber used to make automobile tires.
Castoreum In Cigarettes
Commonly found in the secretions of a beaver’s castor glands (located near the animal’s genitals), this substance is added to cigarettes to give them a sweet odor and smoky flavor. In 1991, Philip Morris used just 8 pounds of the pungent stuff to make 400 billion cigarettes, proving that a little genital secretion goes a long way.
Maltitol Syrup In Energy Bars
This is a 12-carbon sugar alcohol and sweetener, but one that the body absorbs very slowly. Since it’s not a sugar, your gut bacteria can’t digest it; all they can do is convert it into carbon dioxide, hydrogen, and methane. Besides gas and bloating, maltitol can produce a laxative effect so powerful that Australia and New Zealand require a warning label on foods that contain it.
Putrescine In Coffee
Ever wonder what makes spoiled meat so poisonous? Here you go. Ptomaines (organic compounds) like putrescine are produced when E. coli bacteria in the meat break down amino acids. Naturally present in coffee beans, putrescine smells, as you might guess from the name, like Satan’s outhouse.
N-Nitrosodimethylamine (NDMA) In Tap Water
There’s no “maybe” about this stuff – research labs have actually used this to induce cancer in rats with as little as one injection. NDMA can be formed accidentally, as a byproduct of water purification with chlorine or chloramine. You might also accidentally ingest it if you live near a Cold War-era military base; it was found in intercontinental ballistic missile fuel that leached into the ground. Riverside County, California, home of much of the nation’s rocket and missile development, has measured levels of this stuff as high as 12 parts per trillion — four times the state’s allowed limit.
Patrick Di Justo is the author of “This Is What You Just Put in Your Mouth?: From Eggnog to Beef Jerky, the Surprising Secrets of What’s Inside Everyday Products,” recently published by Three Rivers Press. He is currently an editor at MAKE, and was the author of Wired’s most popular column, What’s Inside. In addition to writing for the New York Times, the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Popular Science, Scientific American, New York, Dwell, and more, he has also designed experiments for NASA, worked as a robot programmer, and done stand-up comedy.
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