Six Gross Ingredients you’re likely Eating without Knowing

Would you like some crushed beetle bugs with that? Perhaps some boiled toe nails? Fancy a dollop of dried blood? I didn’t think so, although you’re likely eating all of these “food” items more often than you think.

Having been a vegan for decades and as a former high school health teacher, I constantly read food labels to see exactly what I’m about to savor in my mouth. It’s second nature to me. When there’s more than a few ingredients on the list, or if I can’t pronounce something, I begin to wonder and ask questions.

The food industry is very clever at transforming the names of disgusting items into words we don’t understand or which appear more appetizing and benign.

“Natural Flavors” usually conjures up nice thoughts of herbs or fruit extracts, but it’s actually a common façade for items such as “blood” and “chicken fat.” Despite what feels like an inherent right to know, many food companies I’ve called won’t define the term “natural flavors” claiming it’s part of a “secret recipe” or it’s “proprietary information”. The FDA’s definition of “natural flavor” isn’t much better. You can basically disguise any so called “food” item under the term “natural flavor” if the significant function of the item in the food is flavoring rather than nutritional.

Although I avoid animal products for health and ethical reasons, many undisclosed animal derived food items & colorings, even in small quantities, have caused allergic reactions that range from hives to life-threatening anaphylactic shock. It really is mind boggling that as consumers, we’re not privy to a full disclosure of what we’re eating. Here are five more unappetizing treats you’re likely eating without knowing:

Carmine and Cochineal

• Source: beetles

• Examples of where it’s been found: yogurt, puddings, Tropicana Grapefruit Juice, strawberry shakes, Snapple Pink Lemonade, SoBe Lifewater, Citrus Listerine, jam and it used to be in Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccinos, too!

• Definition: A food coloring derived from the dried bodies of female beetles.


• Source: The lining of calves’ stomachs

• Examples of where it’s been found: various cheeses.

• Definition: Enzyme used for the coagulation of milk in the cheese making processes.


• Source: The boiled bones, hooves, skins and tendons of cows, pigs and horses.

• Examples of where it’s been found: Puddings, Yoplait yogurt, marshmallows, sour cream, frozen desserts, cheese spreads, Jello, Planters Peanuts in the jar, gummy bears, Starburst, Valentine’s Day conversation hearts, Altoids, Frosted Mini Wheats, Pop Tarts that have frosting, Lucky Charms, Rice Crispy Treats.



• Definition: an animal protein used primarily for its thickening and gelling properties.



• Source: The bladders of fish.
• Examples of where it’s been found: Wine & Beer
• Definition: A protein derived from the bladder of a fish that is used to clarify various wines and beers.



the-vegan-way-book-cover-final-mobyDo you have a right to know?

Consumers have been fighting for years to pass the Food Ingredient Right to Know Act which would amend the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act and require that foods containing spices, flavoring, or coloring derived from meat, poultry, or other animal products (including insects) bear labeling stating that fact and their names. Unfortunately, the bill seems to die before passage each and every year. To keep up to date on the status of the bill visit: H.R.2086. In the meantime, you’ll find me squinting my eyes and taking my time deciphering those ingredient lists for creepy crawlies and random body parts.

Jackie Day, Author of The Vegan Way: 21 Days to a Happier, Healthier Plant-Based Lifestyle That Will Transform Your Home, Your Diet, and You (St. Martin’s Press / Macmillan)

  8 comments for “Six Gross Ingredients you’re likely Eating without Knowing

  1. Akash
    December 29, 2011 at 12:59 am

    Eat organic. Don’t eat processed food.

  2. Beth
    February 8, 2012 at 12:01 am

    If organic foods were cheaper more people would probably buy and eat them. Until that happens, the better thing to do would be to educate people on what’s in their food and what that stuff is and does.

  3. Kristina Kochel
    March 4, 2012 at 12:35 pm

    That’s the problem..most people buy processed food because it is cheap and they eat tons of it. Your body isn’t getting the nutrition it needs to thrive with these foods. organic is more expensive, but if your body is getting the nutrition it needs, you don’t have to eat as much food, thus less expensive in the long run. Education is everything!

  4. Rox
    March 7, 2012 at 9:27 pm

    Hello you are correct in that Carmine comes from an insect. It comes from a cochineal scale insect (Hemiptera) though, not a beetle (Coleoptera). Great info on here keep it up!
    (thanks for the correct classification, Rox!)

  5. Kathy Abbott
    April 19, 2012 at 11:08 am

    Hi. I didn’t even get past the beetles, and had to comment. I am horrified to hear some of this. But, it seems way to overwhelming to try to handle. What do you DO????? I am not vegan, but am wanting to become at least vegetarian, and then try my hand at getting there. But this is just too much and makes me feel like I do not have a chance.

  6. Brett
    May 29, 2012 at 10:24 am

    Organic food is cheap…csa and farmers markets… organic processed foods like organic peanut butter chocolate chip cookies… those are expensive…suggestion… plants fruit trees and a garden… I rent and every place i go to I plant a garden somehow… build temporary raised beds.. pots.. many ways to do it

  7. Angela
    February 20, 2013 at 9:51 am

    I know a lot of these ingredients are gross, but the food industry should be held accountable for labeling their ingredients properly because of possible allergic reactions. I am sensitive to food colorings, corn, wheat, dairy and nuts. It is so difficult for me to shop for groceries because of all this generic labeling. Seriously, what the hell is “food starch”? Rice starch? Tapioca starch? Usually it is corn starch, which I’m allergic to. If it says food starch, I don’t buy it, so these companies are losing out on my money. I can’t risk an allergic reaction. For health and safety reasons, we have to force these companies to label these ingredients! Don’t even get me started on Monsanto and their GMO’s.

  8. Kristyn
    April 30, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Two more gross ingredients you’ll find in bread: L-cysteine and mono and digylcerides. L-cysteine is derived from human hair, feathers or pig hair and mono-and digycerides can be from animal sources but they don’t disclose that.

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