It's rare to read an ingredients label these days without stumbling over at least a few unfamiliar words, and many of these words can be a little... disconcerting.
Here are some of the weirdest, grossest, and most unpleasant-sounding additives to ever grace the back of a food package — including what foods you'll find them in, and what they're actually used for.
Sounds like: The smell that emanates from old, damp sink-sponges
What it actually is: A family of carbohydrate extracted from red seaweeds. People have been using these extracts in cooking due to their gelling properties for hundreds of years. You'll find it in things like ice cream, milkshakes, and Gushers.
Oh, and lube. Almost forgot lube.
Sounds like: An insect that sucks the life out of living beings.
What it actually is: Actually, this one is exactly what it sounds like. Cochineal are, in fact, scale insects. Like most scale insects, they are parasites, surviving on sap and juices from plants' vascular systems.
But these bugs have also been used for centuries as a natural crimson-colored dye. The cochineal pictured here, which was smooshed while feeding on a prickly pear cactus, shows their distinctive carmine color. Drying the bugs out and grinding them into a fine powder allows for the creation of what are effectively natural pigment chips. You'll find it in everything from ice cream to yogurt to juice.
Some concerns have been raised over the use of cochineal as a dye, but the FDA has deemed it perfectly safe for consumption. [Photo by Steve via Tree of Life Web Project]
Sounds like: The film that lines your mouth when you wake up with morning breath.
What it actually is: Transglutaminases are a family of enzymes used to bond together protein molecules (earning them the equally unsavory nickname of "meat glue"). Your body, for example uses transglutaminases in the blood clotting process. In food, they're often used in the production of processed meat and fish, to make yogurt creamier, or to make noodles firmer.
A few years ago, someone even used transglutaminase to invent a pasta dish featuring the noodles you see here, which contain no flour whatsoever, and instead consist almost entirely of shrimp meat..
7. Titanium dioxide (TiO2)
Sounds like: The exterior material of a spaceship
What it actually is: A naturally occurring, oxygenated form of the metal titanium that has the quality of looking incredibly white. Consequently, TiO2 is one of the most, if not the most widely used white pigments on Earth, most commonly under the name of titanium white, or pigment white 6. You'll find it in everything from food to clothing to toothpaste. (And yes, incidentally, the paint used for the exterior of the Saturn V rocket.)
Sounds like: A race of rock alien from the Futurama universe. Oh, wait.
What it actually is: A compound of the element boron, originally discovered over a thousand years ago in dry Tibetan lake beds, borax was eventually popularized in the 1800s under the trademark of 20 Mule Team Borax (if there's a box of borax in your house, there's a good chance you'll recognize some version of the company's logo). It was touted as a multi-purpose household cleaner, and still is to this day, but it's also used in research labs as a buffer, fire extinguishers, and in small-scale mining projects to extract gold.
Its use as a food additive in the U.S. was banned long ago by the FDA, but it's still legal in many other countries around the world. Imported caviar, in particular, is notorious for its borax content. The compound is used to preserve the fish eggs' rubbery texture.
5. Bone ash
Sounds like: What it sounds like. Bone ash. Come on, people.
What it is: The white material produced by the heated decomposition of bones (a process known as calcination). It's also produced in a synthetic form known as tricalcium phosphate, which is used as an anti-caking agent, antacid, and as a calcium supplement — in foods like milk, for example.
Sounds like: The black chunks of goop that you hack up after years and years of smoking. (There's just something about having "ect" and "ant" appear in succession that calls to mind the word "expectorant," isn't there?)
What it actually is: A class of compound commonly used to retain or preserve moisture. You'll find humectants in everything from skin lotion to paintballs to marshmallows.
It seems fitting that "humectant" would find its etymological origins in the Latin word humectare, which means to be moist — a word that many people also find to be cringe-worthy. Plus, the sputum that is dislodged by expectorants is certainly moist, which brings us back to the whole humectant/expectorant association. It's all very disgusting to think about, really. Especially when you realize that one of the most well known humectants is actually:
3. Bee vomit
Sounds like: Did I stutter? Bee barf, hymenopteran hurl, insect-sick.
What it actually is: Honey. It's honey. Honey bees transform nectar into honey by regurgitating it. Of course, humans have been using honey as a humectant and sweetener for millennia, because — well, let's face it, bee vomit is delicious. But the fact that honey is, in fact, bee puke is something that many people often forget.
Sounds like: The slurry that forms when the Drano is through dissolving the hair clogging your tub drain.
What it actually is: A class of fatty substances commonly found in animal and plant tissue. It was first isolated over 250 years ago from egg yolk (in Greek, the word for egg yolk is "λέκιθος," or lekithos, hence "lecithin").
Today, lecithin is found in everything from nonstick cooking spray to animal feed to printer ink. If you've had a chocolate bar recently, chances are you've eaten lecithin; confectioners use it to keep cocoa and cocoa butter from separating out of mixture once they're mixed in with all the other ingredients.
Sounds like: Fill in the blank: I administered the enema. Five minutes later, out flew the ______! Don't lie, "fecula" sounds like it belongs there, doesn't it?
What it actually is: Fecula is actually a class of flavorless, powdered starches commonly used as food thickeners. Cornstarch? That's a fecula. Tapioca? Boom, fecula. They're overwhelmingly common, and are used in thinks like puddings, pastas and cakes.
So why does it register with us as something vile and disgusting? Its etymology. The word "fecula" is derived from the Latin word faecula or faes, meaning "dregs" — the same origin as words like "feces" and "fecal."