A doctor friend of ours pooh-poohs fears about chemicals in our food. “Everything is made up of chemicals,” he says. He’s right, of course, and in that spirit we offer this article, with a warning that if the idea of weird stuff being in your food bothers you, you might not want to read on.
Good news: a McDonald’s Chicken McNugget does contain chicken. But it’s not the main ingredient—not even close. According to Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore’s Dilemma, a McNugget is made up of 38 ingredients, mostly chemicals and corn derivatives. In total, a McNugget is 56 percent corn products. But 0.02 percent is tertiary butylhydroquinone, a petroleum byproduct used as a preservative. TBHQ is actually butane, also known as lighter fluid.
Though it’s often used as a substitute for whipped cream, Cool Whip contains no cream and no milk. The only dairy in the product is a milk protein called sodium caseinate. Instead of milk, Cool Whip uses a combination of ingredients, including water, corn syrup, coconut oil, and palm kernel oil, which have a much longer shelf life.
The main ingredient in energy drinks like Red Bull and RockStar that revs you up isn’t caffeine. In fact, an 8.5-ounce can has only about as much caffeine as a cup of coffee. The “energy” actually comes from taurine, a stimulant much more potent than caffeine. Today taurine is synthesized in laboratories, but it was first discovered by German scientists in 1827, as a naturally occurring substance in the bile of oxen.
As milk hardens into cheese, it leaves behind a liquid byproduct called whey. Many cheese manufacturers just threw the whey in the garbage, until Kraft found a use for it. With an added stabilizing agent called carrageenin—a derivative of Irish moss—the whey can be processed into a soft, spongy cheesy brick, better known as Velveeta.
Polysorbate 60 is one of many chemical compounds in a Twinkie. One of the ingredients in polysorbate 60 is ethylene oxide, a highly flammable material that’s toxic if consumed in extremely high amounts. It was used in grenades during the Vietnam War.
Jamba Juice, one the country’s biggest fruit-smoothie chains, offers a non-dairy option for customers who are allergic to milk. Amazingly, the second most prevalent ingredient in the non-dairy blend: nonfat dried milk.
A chocolate-flavored ice cream topping similar to chocolate syrup or fudge sauce, Magic Shell hardens into a thick candy shell when it’s poured over ice cream. (Similar to the chocolate coating on Dairy Queen’s chocolate-dipped cones.) How does the chocolate liquid harden? The effect comes from a mixture of soybean oil and paraffin wax, a petroleum product also commonly used in candles and skin cream.