The 13 grossest things you're eating

The stuff on this list makes rat hair in peanut butter seem appetizing.
© Rodale.com // © Rodale.com

—By Leah Zerbe, Rodale News

Unfortunately, gross food has become the norm in most supermarkets, with packaged food ingredient lists reading more like chemistry homework than something you'd want your family to eat. But in many cases, marketers have figured out a way to keep toxic additives and disease-promoting food packaging off of the label, making your job as a consumer harder than ever. We're here to clear up the confusion and help you avoid some of the grossest foods on the market!

More: The grossest bugs you don't know you're eating

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Flame retardant–laced soda

What it is: The toxic flame retardant chemical brominated vegetable oil, or BVO, was initially used to keep plastics from catching on fire.

Where it is: For decades, the food industry has been adding it to certain sodas, juices, and sports drinks, including Mountain Dew, Fanta Orange, Sunkist Pineapple, and some Powerade flavors. (Gatorade announced it would remove the compound from its drinks in spring 2013.) BVO's purpose? To keep the artificial flavoring chemicals from separating from the rest of the liquids.

Why it's bad: Scientists have linked too much BVO to bromide poisoning symptoms like skin lesions, memory loss, and nerve disorders.

More: 3 surprising reasons to give up soda

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Paint chemical in salad dressing

What it is: Titanium dioxide is a component of the metallic element titanium, a mined substance that is sometimes contaminated with toxic lead.

Where it is: Commonly used in paints and sunscreens, big food corporations add it to lots of things we eat, too, including processed salad dressing, coffee creamers, and icing.

Why it's bad: The food industry adds it to hundreds of products to make dingy, overly processed items appear whiter. "White has long been the symbolic color of 'clean,'" explains food industry insider Bruce Bradley, who shares the tricks, traps, and ploys of big food manufacturers on his blog, BruceBradley.com. "Funny, when you use real food, you don't need any of these crazy additives—I think I prefer the real deal."

More:9 toxic rip-offs in the kitchen

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Maggoty mushrooms

What it is: Maggots are fly larvae, tiny rice-shaped creatures that feast on rotting foods.

Where it is: The Food and Drug Administration legally allows 19 maggots and 74 mites in a 3.5-ounce can of mushrooms.

Why it's bad: While maggots do have their place in the medical world—they can help heal ulcers and other wounds—most people think it's pretty gross to eat them!

If you need another reason to ditch canned goods, consider this: Most are lined with bisphenol A, or BPA, a plastic chemical that causes unnatural hormonal changes linked to heart attacks, obesity, and certain cancers.

More: What plastic chemicals are doing to your heart

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Cloned cow's stomach

What it is: Traditionally, cheese makers used rennet derived from the mucosa of a veal calf's fourth stomach to create the beloved, versatile dairy product. But Bradley notes that cost and the limited availability of calf stomachs have led to the development of several alternatives, including vegetable rennet, microbial rennet, and—the food industry's rennet of choice—a genetically modified version derived from a cloned calf gene.

Where it is: It's used to make the vast majority of cheese sold in the United States.

Why it's bad: The long-term health effects of eating genetically engineered foods has never been studied in humans. And since GMO ingredients aren't listed on the label, it can be tough for consumers to avoid rennet from this source. "With all these rennet varieties often listed simply as "enzymes" on an ingredient panel, it can be very hard to know exactly what kind you’re eating when you buy cheese," says Bradley, author of the soon-to-be-released book, Fat Profits.

More: The new GMO threatening your health

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Herbicide-flavored food

What it is: Glyphosate, the active chemical ingredient in the popular weed killer, Roundup, is a hormone-disrupting chemical now used primarily on corn and soy crops genetically engineered to withstand a heavy dousing of the chemical. Nonorganic farmers dumped 57 million pounds of glyphosate on food crops in 2009, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) figures.

Where it is: Roundup is so heavily used around homes and in farm fields that it's now being detected in streams, the air, and even rain. Because it's a systemic herbicide, it's actually taken up inside the plant…meaning we eat it. Yep, it's legally allowed in our food, and in an amount that worries scientists. It's found in most nonorganic packaged foods because most contain corn- or soy-derived ingredients, the crops that are most often heavily doused with Roundup. (For even more reasons you NEED to go organic, check out Organic Manifesto.)

Why it's bad: Glyphosate exposure is linked to obesity, learning disabilities, birth defects, infertility, and potentially irreversible metabolic damage. To avoid pesticides in products, eat organic and avoided processed foods as much as possible. And use caution—"all natural" foods often are chockfull of pesticides and genetically engineered ingredients.

More: What biotech pesticides are doing to our bodies

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Sex hormones in milk

What it is: Today's cows produce double the amount of milk they did just 40 years ago, thanks largely to a genetically engineered, synthetic hormone called recombinant bovine somatotropin, or rBST.

Where it is: It could be in milk that's not organic or not labeled as rBST free.

Why it's bad: Scientists link rBST to prostate, breast, and colon cancers. It's banned in other countries, and although still legal here, many dairies are moving away from it due to consumer demand. Choose organic milk to ensure that the cows producing your milk are fed a diet free of antibiotics, hormones, and pesticides.

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Shampoo chemicals in produce

What it is: Phthalates are plasticizing chemicals used in everything from pesticides and fragranced soaps and shampoos to nail polish and vinyl shower curtains.

Where it is: A 2010 study published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found phthalates are winding up in our food, too. The source could be direct exposure to pesticides containing the hormone-disrupting chemical. Or to another potential source, human sewage sludge applied as a fertilizer to farm fields. The sludge can be tainted with shampoo chemicals that wash down the drain—it all winds up at the water-treatment plant, the source of the sludge. (Note: Use of human sewage sludge is banned in organic farming.)

Why it's bad: Phthalate exposure, even in small amounts, has been linked to behavioral problems in children, allergies and asthma, eczema, and unhealthy changes in our hormonal systems.

More: 6 chemicals that are making you fat

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Human hair and feathers

What it is: L-cysteine is a non-essential amino acid made from dissolved human hair (often from China) or duck feathers.

Where it is: It's used as a commercial dough conditioner to improve the texture of breads and baked goods.

Why it's bad: Eating something derived from the human body violates Muslim beliefs. Hair and duck feathers pose an ethical dilemma for vegans, too.

Bake your own homemade bread (without hair and feathers) using bread recipes from the Rodale Recipe Finder.

More: The dark side of "healthy" wheat

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Crushed bugs

What it is: Carmine, a bright red food colorant, is actually the crushed abdomen of the female Dactylopius coccus, an African beetle-like insect.

Where it is: Look for it in red candies and red-tinted yogurts and juices (particularly ruby red juices)—it's often listed as carmine, crimson lake, cochineal, or natural red #4 on ingredient labels, according to Bradley.

Why it's bad: Not only is the thought of eating bug juice gross, but it also poses an ethical issue for some vegetarians and vegans.

More: 9 immune-boosting foods

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