The foods that lurk on grocery shelves have ingredient lists that often defy pronunciation. Those few words that can be pronounced are sometimes far too horrible to contemplate. I thought I’d peel back the greasy cellophane and get the skinny on what makes these processed “foods” tick. If you’re prone to abandoning food items when you learn their dark secrets, I suggest you stop reading now.

Here are but a few, in no particular order:

Mechanically Separated Chicken:
A primary ingredient in Slim Jims and many other food-flavored solids, the name conjures images of plucked chicken carcasses being tossed into a giant machine that rips the flesh from its bones, and grinds the remains into mush. And coincidentally, that’s EXACTLY what it is. It comes out the other end as a gooey paste. No doubt it will be the same consistency when the hospital’s stomach pump mechanically separates the chicken from me.

Partially Hydrogenated Vegetable/Soybean/Cottonseed Oil:
Refers to oils that have had hydrogen added, in the presence of small amounts of catalyst metals such as nickel, palladium, platinum or cobalt. This causes the oil harden to a desired level, but it creates trans fatty acids, which are very unfriendly to the heart. Found in Crisco, Oreos, and many other tasty, death-hastening foods.

Brominated Vegetable Oil (BVO):
Vegetable oil mixed with bromine. According to, bromine is “a heavy, volatile, mobile, dangerous reddish-brown liquid. The red vapour has a strong unpleasant odour and the vapour irritates the eyes and throat. […] When spilled on the skin it produces painful sores. It is a serious health hazard, and maximum safety precautions should be taken when handling it.” It is used in to allow artificial citrus flavoring to mix with oil, often in citrus-flavored sodas such as Mountain Dew.

Trace amounts of BVO are stored permanently in body fat when it is consumed. BVO is one of only four food additives the FDA considers “interim,” and it must be periodically re-approved for safety.

Xanthan Gum:
Named for the Xanthomonas campestris bacteria that create it, it is the powdery byproduct of the fermentation of glucose or sucrose. Used to add texture to foods like salad dressing, pudding, etc. Also can be used in place of gluten for baking. Extra credit for the cool X-pronounced-like-a-Z factor.

Carnauba Wax:
A wax derived from the leaves of a plant native to northeastern Brazil, the Carnauba Palm. It is used to make things shiny, such as M&Ms, Skittles, and Buicks.

Gum Arabic (aka Gum Acacia):
This substance, derived from tree scabs, is used as a food “stabilizer,” meaning that it gives a food a certain consistency. It is produced by the the acacia tree to seal up any damage which occurs to its bark. It is used in foods that are gummy, such as soft drink syrups, marshmallows, and gumdrops.

Monosodium Glutamate (MSG):
MSG is a highly effective flavor enhancer that is considered by many to be, well, kind of a jerk. It is created by fermenting starch, sugar beets, sugar cane, or molasses. Its presence in food makes other flavors stand out more, but eating food that contains MSG causes many people to experience headaches, flushing, sweating, and a sensation of pressure in the mouth or face. Rare reports have indicated swelling of the throat, chest pain, heart palpitations, and shortness of breath.

Repeated studies have shown that pure MSG does not cause any of these symptoms, and the current suspicion is that the symptoms are caused by trace amounts of a mold that grows in the vats which produce MSG. Time will tell whether MSG is a misunderstood friend, or a sneaky, flavor-enhancing foe.

MSG is common in Chinese food, frozen dinners, and snack foods.

Sodium Pyrophosphate:
A slightly toxic compound used as a thickener/emulsifier for things like chicken nuggets, marshmallows, and soy-based pseudomeat. Also used in toothpaste and clothing detergents to prevent calcium and magnesium buildup.

Trisodium Phosphate (aka Sodium Phosphate):
An ionic salt used as a thickener/emulsifier for foods, as well as common uses as a degreaser, detergent, and laxative.

A low-calorie sugar alcohol used as a sugar substitute in sugar-free cake mixes, cookies, candies, etc. Known to cause abdominal pain and severe diarrhea if too much is ingested. But at least you’re not fat.

A sugar alcohol like Sorbitol, but used in breath mints because it causes a “cool” feeling. Also a primary ingredient in many childrens’ laxatives.

Sodium Benzoate:
A salt that is used as a preservative because of its ability to kill yeasts, bacteria and fungi. The FDA restricts it to one tenth of a percent in foods, since it is poisonous in larger quantities. Can provoke asthma, gastrointestinal symptoms, and behavior problems in children. Often found in salad dressings, carbonated drinks, jams, and fruit juices.

High Fructose Corn Syrup:
Corn syrup which has had much of its natural glucose sugar converted to fructose sugar. It’s the primary sweetener for mass-produced foods in the US, particularly soft drinks. It’s often cited as the leading cause of obesity in the US, and is linked to diabetes.

Used in making Jell-o, jams, and things of that nature, gelatin is created by boiling the bones, skins, and hides of cows and pigs. This releases collagen, which is boiled, filtered, and ground in to powder. Doesn’t that make you want to run out and grab a big old bowl of raspberry-flavored jiggly-hides-and-bones?

Cochineal (aka Carmine or Carminic Acid):
A deep red food coloring used for fruit juices, gelatins, and candies. It is derived from ground-up Dactylopius coccus beetles.

Partially De-Fatted Cooked Pork/Beef Fatty Tissue:
Partially defatted beef or pork is derived from “trimmings” that have at least 12% visible lean, and generally have a protein content between 17% and 20% once some of the fat and tendons are cut out. Nightmare meat.

Sodium nitrite:
A color fixative and preservative in meats and fish, it effectively prevents the growth of botulism. Four grams are lethal to a human, yet it also can be used as an antidote for cyanide poisoning. It is used as a preservative in numerous meat products, such as cold cuts and sausage. Also, one of only six ingredients in The World’s Most Horrifying Food: Armour brand Pork Brains in Milk Gravy (it exists, and somebody eats it. It also contains 1170% of the recommended daily allowance of cholesterol).

I could go on and on, but I’m not going to. I’ve turned over enough rocks for one night. I feel like I’ve lost a small part of myself in all of this food research: the lunch part.