It’s really easy to judge another culture’s cuisine, especially when it’s significantly different from our own. Blog posts with titles like “The Most Bizarre Fast Foods From Across the Globe” point to menu items such as the squid ink burger from McDonald’s Japan, or Krispy Kreme U.K.’s deep-fried frosted mince pie doughnut. But the U.S. shouldn’t be disqualified in the freaky-food game, even if what we’re ordering seems comparatively less colorful—although, remember Cheetos Mystery Colorz Snacks, which people reported turned their poop green? (This appears to be a trend, as I’ll get to in a moment.)
When we say “horrifying,” we’re not talking about Halloween candies stamped with thorny-nosed witches and googly-eyed ghosts. Those are cute, at least outwardly. Rather, we’re talking about foods that are too bizarre to believe yet too prevalent to avoid. They’re enmeshed in our industrial food system, hidden in plain sight or disguised as something else, and we eat them oblivious to this fact.
It is no secret that the U.S. supply chain is a complex and chaotic network of growers, distributors, manufacturers, processors, and vendors. But what is less known is the prevalence, across the food industry, of vague ingredients, mislabeling, outright fraud, and contamination. As we become more aware as consumers, it can feel like we’re awaking to a nightmare where a globalized, industrial food system is the scary monster—and we’re the villagers trembling in fear.
From the insidiously harmful to the blatantly terrible, here’s a list of food items or ingredients that might haunt you well past Halloween.
Burger King’s Halloween Whopper
In 2015, the fast food chain offered a special Halloween Whopper for a limited time. What made it different from a regular Whopper were the buns, which were tinted black, supposedly from A.1. Sauce. But the social media hashtag #greenpoop suggested the color probably derived from other ingredients, too: “My stool was as green as the Irish countryside after a quenching rain,” tweeted one customer, while another described it as “almost a grass-green.” I’m assuming he didn’t mean wheatgrass.
The #greenpoop phenomenon was largely a playful one, but it still raised concerns about the opaque (black, some may say) nature of fast food. Burger King never officially explained the side effect, and just kept pointing to A.1. Sauce as the primary coloring agent. But according to health food site Superlife, which visited Burger King’s nutrition page to verify the full list of ingredients, it was more accurately a cocktail of artificial food dyes, including FD&C Yellow #6, FD&C Blue #1, and FD&C Red #40, and much more. Although dyes are deemed safe to consume by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, many health professionals advise against that, warning that artificial food coloring can cause behavioral problems in children (and cancer and birth defects in rats).
So, was the burger considered a success? Let’s just say the chain hasn’t offered the item since.
McDonald’s Shamrock Shake
Speaking of green, the seasonal Shamrock Shake from McDonald’s glows as if it’s radioactive, and that’s not just in color-saturated ads. Photos shared on social media by enthusiastic Shamrock devotees confirm just as much. Evidently, the spooky glow is a selling point. (Insight: Foods are weird because people are really weird.)
Since its introduction in 1970, more than 60 million Shamrock Shakes have sold. It’s advertised as a four-ingredient product: ice cream, Shamrock Shake syrup, whipped cream, and maraschino cherries. But, like the Halloween Whopper, the real list is more complicated than that: A total of 54 ingredients include mono- and diglycerides, guar gum, dextrose, sodium citrate, artificial vanilla flavor, sodium phosphate, carrageenan (an additive), disodium phosphate, cellulose gum, vitamin A palmitate, high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup, sodium benzoate (preservative), Yellow 5, Blue 1, and, presumably, Soylent Green.
If color affects our perceptions of taste, which researchers say it does, then why are people racing to McDonald’s for what is basically 22 ounces of mutant-colored high-fructose corn syrup? I’d ask my cousin who, before her sugar-restricting diet, sucked down one ceremonious shake each year, but I’ve always questioned her taste—in the 1990s, she was equally obsessed with Beanie Babies, convinced they’d eventually transform into eBay gold.
The brains of animals are featured in cuisines all across the globe, ranging in form from sautés to fritters. But there’s something about sandwiching one between two slices of white bread that just seems bizarre, as if it were a school lunch packed for a zombie child. But don’t expect that attitude in Indiana, where brain sandwiches were awarded the state’s nastiest (beloved) food title by lifestyle site Thrillist. Hoosiers love them anyway.
The mad cow disease scare resulted in pig brains being substituted into the meal, but that hasn’t stopped a restaurant in Evansville, Indiana, from continuing to serve brain sandwiches. According to The Indianapolis Star, they’re dipped in batter and deep-fried.
Despite how it’s prepared, the brain is actually a nutritious food (when not infected with mad cow, obviously). Organ meats such as liver and brains are abundant sources of DHA, an omega-3 fatty acid critical in neurodevelopment and cognition. Which raises the question: Why isn’t a brain-rich diet making those zombies more agile?
Maybe it’s because zombies are feasting on counterfeit brains. In recent years, scandals of fake foods have shaken consumers all around the world, demonstrating that global supply chains are vastly complex—and highly opaque. From horsemeat passed off as beef to manuka honey loaded with high-fructose corn syrup, counterfeit foods might be what you least expect them to be (and you might be paying a pretty price too, as the Kobe beef scam in recent years has proven).
In 2016, one of the more famous scandals centered on Parmesan cheese, which is already controversial among Italian producers who resent U.S. companies appropriating their image and reputation for marketing purposes. A Pennsylvania cheese factory was caught altering its “100 percent real” Parmesan with substitutes and fillers like wood pulp, then distributing it to some of the country’s biggest grocery chains.
Let’s say that again: wood pulp.
“Some grated Parmesan suppliers have been mislabeling products by filling them with too much cellulose, a common anti-clumping agent made from wood pulp, or using cheaper cheddar, instead of real Romano. Someone had to pay,” Bloomberg News reported.
The FDA considers cellulose safe to eat (surprise, surprise), but I’m pretty sure everyone would prefer Parmesan in their Parmesan cheese, even if it didn’t come from Parma, Italy. Cellulose would be preferred over the next food item, however.
What’s a little wood pulp sprinkled on your spaghetti when you’ve got maggots in your tomato sauce? The FDA lists such acceptable contamination in their Defect Levels Handbook, a disturbing and fascinating look into the agency’s process of regulating, well, grossness. As delineated in the handbook, a can of tomatoes can hold two “or more” maggots per 500 grams, which is just a little more than your typical, 14.5-ounce can of tomatoes.
The handbook looks like it was stolen from a mad scientist’s lair, with a long table of super-precise entries like “Popcorn. Rodent Filth: 20 or more gnawed grains per pound and rodent hair is found in 50% or more of the subsamples” and “Fig Paste. Insects: Contains 13 or more insect heads per 100 grams of fig paste in each of 2 or more subsamples.” It’s an entertaining read until you realize those items are probably sitting in your cupboard. Right now.
The only way to avoid this seems to involve removing yourself from modern life entirely and dedicating most waking moments to planting, harvesting, and preserving your own food. But then again, some exposure is probably inevitable: We can’t avoid contact with insects and rodents, especially when foods are left in storage. As the FDA notes, “it is economically impractical to grow, harvest, or process raw products that are totally free of non-hazardous, naturally occurring, unavoidable defects.”
To cope, do what I did: Read the handbook and then pretend none of it applies to you.
Beaver anal glands
Perhaps the freakiest food fact of all: Your favorite ice cream is likely dosed with a succulent ingredient from the nether regions of Castor canadensis. Like, from the anuses of beavers. Like, in your food. That you’ve eaten. And that you can’t uneat. It’s labeled as “natural flavoring” even though it’s an approved food additive called castoreum made from the castor sacs of male and female beavers. I don’t know if I can go on writing this. I’m pretty sure I just had a momentary brain lapse. Maybe I should eat a sandwich.
As is consistent with our pattern of developing totally arbitrary and random-as-hell products that solve no real problems—jars of intermixed peanut butter and jelly, individually wrapped cheese slices, Easy Mac because the box macaroni and cheese is too much of a bother—beaver anus as “natural flavoring” is prevalent. I can’t assume the good folks in our U.S. corporate laboratories invented this product because verifying that would have involved typing and then reading the word “beaver anal glands” at least one more time, and that’s one more time too many.
So, folks, get out there trick-or-treating and support our good ol’ American supply chain! Just don’t eat anything.
Erin Sagen is a freelancer and former associate editor at YES! She lives in Seattle and writes about food, health, and suburban sustainability.