9 Surprising Ingredients in Famous Foods

9 Surprising Ingredients in Famous Foods
Weird, but good, Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Candy, beer, french fries, bread... vegans, we are sorry

Nayanika Mukherjee
November 16 , 2020
07 Min Read

Disclaimer: disgust, revelations and (hopefully) a few laughs ahead.

Roohafza has fruit juice, but also... spinach


Roohafza with milk and watermelon is a popular summer cooler in India

We are not sure how they pulled it off, but the rose-flavoured syrup also features flowers like lotus and European white lily, pineapple, roots like vetiver, and veggies like carrot. The concentrated, ruby-red squash has been sold in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh by Hamdard Labs for decades. The recipe, formulated in Ghaziabad in 1906, seems unchanged for over a century.

Bug secretions coat many famous candy

You might have second thoughts before downing that packet of jellybeans

What you might read as ‘confectioner’s glaze’ on wrappers is actually food-grade shellac. It’s a resin secreted by the female lac bug, a denizen of tropical forests. Shellac is used to give candy, coffee beans, fruit and chewing gum their hard, shiny look. It’s generally deemed safe for consumption, but since it’s an animal product, vegans might want to stay away. If you hog on sweet treats, read the label when purchasing candy corn, certain jelly beans, Hershey’s Milk Duds and Whoppers, and candy made by Godiva. Shellac may also be marked as ‘pure food glaze’ or ‘natural glaze’ or ‘confectioner’s resin’.

McDonald’s USA uses beef flavour in its fries

Crispy, delicious, but definitely not vegetarian

The fast food chain originally fried its spuds in a mix of cottonseed oil and rendered beef fat (called beef ‘tallow’). Once it switched to a healthier vegetable oil, losing the umami flavour of meat meant losing customers, so it mixed in beef flavouring as a ‘natural flavor’. This taste can also be created in labs by picking out the amino acids in beef and adding sugar, citric acid, moisture and heat. As you might have guessed, lab-made beef flavour would technically be vegetarian. McD wasn’t ready to confuse both sides, and clarified that their fries are not green—after a $10 million payment to furious vegetarian groups in 2002. 

Gooseberry (amla) goes into Chyawanprash

Gooseberry is a primary ingredient in the Ayurvedic composition of chyawanprash

Most Indians have gulped down this mystery goop unquestioningly, but what’s the star ingredient here? Gooseberry, commonly known as amla, cooked down with about 50 medicinal herbs and extracts. Chyawanprash’s actual recipe came from Ayurvedic texts, but eight of its original constituting ingredients aren’t available for commercial manufacturing today, so guess we’ll never know its potency. This paper attempted to find answers, and discovered that it’s good for digestion, as an antioxidant, and as an aphrodisiac. The Vitamin C count isn’t much, which makes the ‘ward off sickness’ bit quite questionable.

Your beer and fish bladder are long-time pals

Beer manufacturers use isinglass to refine their brew

Isinglass is a form of collagen taken from the dried swim bladders of bony fish. Y’know, the internal organ filled with gas that controls buoyancy. It’s used to clarify some types of cask-conditioned beer—commonly, British ones—and is used as an accelerant for yeast to stick together and settle at the bottom of the aging container. Little isinglass remains when you actually pour out a pint, but if you’re still concerned, read up on your favourite brewery's methods.

Most truffle oil doesn’t contain truffle

Actual truffle is smelled out by pigs, making synthetic truffle oil an affordable alternative

Finding truffles is tricky business—you need trained pigs, perfect climates, and the exact species of trees (poplar, elm, oak) at whose base it can grow as a humble fungus. It’s a labour-intensive process, with the stocks mostly restricted to fancy hotels, restaurants and gourmet food stores. If you buy truffle oil to ‘posh up’ your food, more often than not, it’s a synthetic creation that uses the compound 2,4-dithiapentane on an oil base, and has no real truffle. Seems wiser to just shell out a bit more and enjoy the actual, aromatic ingredient shaved onto your pasta, right? And if Anthony Bourdain, Gordon Ramsay and Martha Stewart have made their hatred towards the artificial kind clear, best to follow suit.

Your bread might have human hair or duck feather

Cinnamon rolls, honey wheat rolls--if it's not coming from an organic or small-scale bakery, the dough is likely to have this ingredient

Unless you exclusively get your bread and baked goodies from a local bakery (what is this, Paris?), it probably has a bit of human hair in it. Not the stuck-on-your-tongue kind, but a component called L-cysteine, which is isolated mostly from our hair. Other possible, and equally delightful sources? Duck feathers, pig bristles and cow horns. L-cysteine is used as a dough conditioner and increases the shelf life of commercially-made bread. What seems worse—that your bagel was once someone's mullet, or that you might be chewing down on horns with your store-bought apple pie?

Packed, shredded cheese can have cellulose

If you don't want clumps, virgin wood pulp is the answer

It's a sneaky ingredient, but the inclusion is entirely functional. Pre-packed shredded cheese comes with a coating of powdered cellulose on it to prevent clumping. Cellulose has anti-caking properties, which helps block out moisture from the packet's contents. It's safe for consumption, but if you find this unsettling, grab that wedge of cheddar and grate away. 

Dark chocolate goes into spicy Mexican mole sauce

Enchiladas drizzled with mole sauce

In Mexican food, mole is a thick, dark and savoury sauce spooned over meat, fish, enchiladas and tamales. The name literally means a mix, and sees chili peppers cooked down with plantains, onions, garlic, nuts and seeds, vegetables, spices and chocolate. Story goes that it was created in a hurry with whatever bits and bobs that members of the clergy could throw together for a visiting official. The chocolate helps round out the fiery sauce with a tinge of bittersweet depth. Considering how Central America gave cocoa to the world, learning about mole is the least we can do to return the favour. 

Is there any unusual ingredient in a popular food that we missed out? Especially something found in India? Let us know!

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