Have you ever looked at the ingredients that appear on the back of your frozen dinner? Looks more like the components of a chemistry project than a nutritious meal, huh? Ever wonder why so many bizarre additives are in a Salisbury steak? Well, for one, they enable your microwave to transform an icy block into something that looks, smells, and tastes relatively similar to fresh food. Some also ensure that a box of spaghetti and meatballs always tastes the same, whether it was made in Nebraska or North Carolina.
While some ingredients sound scary, they’ve all been deemed safe to eat by the FDA. But to find out exactly what we’re eating, we asked a panel of experts to analyze a typical meal of chicken Parm with a side of broccoli and baked apples for dessert. You’ll be as shocked as we were to discover that a few of the items lead double lives – as condom lubricants and explosives.
What you can see…
Unless the box reads chicken, rest assured it’s a real clucker, one that most likely grew up on a U.S. poultry farm. But that’s about all you can know for sure. The chicken probably feasted on conventional grains, and unless the label says otherwise, the bird may have been treated with antibiotics to keep it healthy. The breading and batter contain flour, yeast, and oil – nothing unusual so far. Oleoresin paprika (paprika that’s oil-soluble and easily dissolves in sauce) adds flavor and color. And while Grandma’s recipe calls for dredging your chicken breast in egg to make the breading stick, the food industry uses guar gum instead. (Eggs can become contaminated easily and are more expensive than guar gum.) Made from the guar bean, a major crop in India and Pakistan, it has thickening properties that also help make paper, oil-drilling fluid, and explosives. Bam!
Pasta and Sauce
Just like most pasta, these noodles are made of semolina flour, water, and egg whites. The sauce contains the usual: diced tomatoes and tomato juice, most likely from Ohio, Indiana, or California, which is where many tomato-processing companies are located.
The veggie’s birthplace varies depending on when and where it’s in season, freshest, and cheapest–if it’s July, it could be Maine; September, California; December, South America. Immediately after harvest, the produce is blanched and flash-frozen, which preserves nutrients.
Like broccoli, apples come from wherever they’re ripe. Because cooked apples turn a nauseating gray or brown color when frozen, they’re treated with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) and citric acid (the chemical compound that makes a lemon sour). This prevents the apples from reacting with oxygen so they maintain their golden hue.
What you can’t see…
Butylated Hydroxytoluene (BHT)
This preservative keeps the oil used to fry the chicken from going rancid. The FDA says it’s safe, but the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a U.S.-based advocacy group, recommends trying to avoid it because animal studies have produced conflicting results. Some have linked the chemical with increased cancer risk, while others have found a decreased risk.
A spin-doctor’s way of saying “bacteria.” Not the kind that could make you sick, but harmless types of this describes bugs…