All About Food: The manufacturing of our food is not pretty

I came across an article the other day that included a warning that the various kinds of veggie burgers contain the substance hexane, which is a volatile solvent and an EPA-registered air pollutant and neurotoxin.

Since I do like my veggie burgers, I thought I should look up more about hexane. What I learned was that it is used widely in the extraction of vegetable oil from seeds such as soybeans, corn, canola, safflower, sunflower, cotton and flax. In addition, hexane solvent can be used to extract fish protein, shea butter and a variety of flavor extracts.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has indicated that “soybean products that undergo hexane solvent extraction can be generally recognized as safe; the FDA has set allowable levels for hexane in some specific foods: spice oleoresins, modified hop extract, fish protein isolate, cocoa butter substitute.”

Because it is used only in the initial steps of soy processing, and virtually all of it is eliminated by the time the soy ingredients are incorporated into the burgers, it has been declared safe. Nevertheless, the nonprofit Cornucopia Institute found hexane residue in soy oil, soy grits and soy meal. After this finding, several companies switched to safer and more environmentally friendly, hexane-free protein ingredients.

If you are not sure about this controversy, you can select foods made from whole soybeans. These will be hexane-free.

This led me to some interesting information about food additives. Beware! These are all commonly used, but you may be surprised by what they are made of and what they are used in.

Shellac, which is derived from the secretions of the female Kerria lacca, an insect native to Thailand, is used to coat those pretty sweet treats like jelly beans and candy corn.

Ammonia, a strong-smelling chemical used in household cleaning products, is used to kill germs in low-grade fatty meat and in the product sometimes called “pink slime,” which is used as a filler in ground beef.

Carmine, which is used to give red or pink coloring and shine to food, is made from female boiled beetle shells. It takes 70,000 bugs to make one pound of dye, which is found in ice cream, Skittles, Good n’ Plenty, lemonade and grapefruit juice. (Some people have a severe allergic reaction to it, and the Food and Drug Administration now requires it to be clearly listed on food labels. Starbucks got slammed in 2012 for using it in frappuccinos and eventually banned it.)

Castoreum extract is a bitter orange-brown substance that is retrieved from a beaver’s anal gland. This additive can be found in many processed food products that are flavored with vanilla or raspberry, like ice cream, yogurt and cookies. It is another additive labeled as “natural flavoring,” which, of course, is accurate, if not appetizing. Oddly, it is also used in perfumes.

L-cysteine, an amino acid made from human hair or duck feathers, is used to extend the shelf life of food like factory-made bread. The hair, mostly gathered from the floors of beauty salons in China, is dissolved in acid, and the L-cysteine is isolated and shipped off to commercial bread producers.

Isinglass, a gelatin collected from the dried bladders of freshwater fish like sturgeon, is used to give beer that golden color.

Lanolin, a term for the oil that sheep produce in their wool, is a greasy secretion that is used as a softener in chewing gum and foods — another item that is masked on labels, this time as “gum base.”

I hope I haven’t completely destroyed your appetite, but I thought you should know.

TERRY MARKOWITZ was in the gourmet food and catering business for 20 years. She can be reached for comments or questions at