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HAPPY NEW YEAR!
You know what I didn’t do yet? Make a resolution. I have a rough plan of how I’m going to be a vaguely better person (not buying every little object or product my heart desires and eating out less) but I recognize that this is just the natural ebb and flow of my existence and that I’ll never change in any meaningful way. So I don’t make dramatic resolutions. Because I don’t like failing and making them would just be setting myself up for failure.
But it is a good idea to eat fewer processed foods, maybe drink more water, maybe stretch once a day so my hamstrings don’t completely shrivel up and die. You may see me talking about these things. You may see more salads in my Instagram. But don’t worry, I won’t go on some “natural kick.” You guys know me better than that.
Because nature is terrifying. Nature is trying to kill us. That’s why we have houses. That’s why we have modern medicine. All this terrible weather is natural. This bug that’s turned me into a disgusting snot monster is natural. Bee masks are natural. Beaver butt secretions are natural (more on that soon).
Not to belabor the point, but a “natural” chemical is still a chemical and naturally derived products are still derived in a lab by people in lab coats, with Bunsen burners and beakers and what not. “Natural” does not mean picked from a tree or found on the ground and whirred in a food processor and poured into a mold.
Sometimes it is MUCH MORE labor intensive and much more chemically involved to derive something naturally rather than taking the synthetic route. But “natural” sells and people will pay for the extra labor. That’s fine, but don’t think a chemical is anything other than a chemical, whether it’s derived from apple peel or not. Neither "natural" nor "synthetic" mean "safe."
In terms of food, “natural” is defined as “a product containing no artificial ingredient or added color and is only minimally processed (a process which does not fundamentally alter the raw product) may be labeled natural,” which is pretty broad.
“Natural Flavoring” is a little more specific but still includes a (beaver) buttload of products. The definition of natural flavor under the Code of Federal Regulations is: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
That’s a lot of crap. I mean “bark” is on that list. Bark. Wood.
Just to show you how varying the list of “natural ingredients” in food and cosmetics can be, I have compiled a (short) varied list. None of these are particularly shocking from a health standpoint, but they are a little weird. You know I don’t really care whether I eat bugs or not, but some of you might.
Castoreum is often incorrectly described as a secretion collected from the anal glands of the noble beaver. This is false. It is an exudate from the castor sacs which are located very close to the anal glands, between the pelvis and tail.
It tastes of vanilla, I am told. Though not very common (300 pounds of castoreum are used in the US per year as a flavoring additive where as 2.6 million pounds of vanillin are used) there’s no real way to know if your consuming it or not, as it is usually just listed as “natural flavoring” with no further explanation. That is the height of rudeness, my friends.
Used in perfumes (the sacs are aged two years to let them mellow out a bit) it contributes “animalistic” or “leather” notes.
According to Wikipedia, “some classic perfumes incorporating castor are Emeraude, Chanel Antaeus, Cuir de Russie, Magie Noire, Lancôme Caractère, Hechter Madame, Givenchy III, Shalimar, and many "leather" themed compositions.”
Nobody tell Tynan.
Another contribution from adorable furry creatures, hyraceum is the petrified urine and feces of the Cape Hyrax used as an ethical substitute for musk in perfumes where it contributes a “deeply complex fermented scent that combines the elements of musk, castoreum, civet, tobacco and agarwood.”
It is literally thousand-year-old animal waste. I’m only marginally disturbed by this, as it’s mostly sterile after all of that petrification, plus it can be gathered without disturbing the Cape Hyrax. It’s simply dug up.
But still, it's poop. I love furry things and all, but I don't really want their poop on me. I love Angie more than anything, and I don't even want her poop on me.
I don't really like musk though, so it's not an issue for me.
“Carmine” or “cochineal extract” is the extract of the cochineal, a scale insect of the genus Opuntia. Carminic acid (which makes up around 20% of the bug's body) can be extracted from the body or eggs and mixed with aluminum or calcium salts to make an all-natural bright red dye which is used as a food and cosmetic colorant.
Because some people have severe allergic reactions to carmine, this one is in ingredients lists and can’t be lumped under “natural coloring” or “natural flavoring.” This is obviously good to know if you have a carmine allergy, but also good to know if you are vegetarian or vegan. One wouldn't expect bugs to be in their strawberry Frappucino, but here we are.
I’m not vegetarian, so I don’t mind eating these little bugs or smearing them on my face, but I like to know exactly what I’m eating and smearing on my face (sometimes).
Cosmetics may be a little more tricky, due to trade secrets, but you should be safe with vegan brands.
Man this stuff is on all the shiny candy. It's the stuff that gives M&M's their pretty shell and jelly beans their glossy appearance.
It's made of shellac and shellac is a resin secreted by the female lac bug. It is scraped off trees and sold in flakes (in a variety of warm colors) and then dissolved with ethyl alcohol (the drinking kind) to form liquid shellac, with dries into a UV-resistant, shiny coating.
This stuff is actually pretty amazing. Since it's acid-resistant, it can be used to coat pills that slowly release in the stomach instead of all at once. Sometimes nature is helpful.
The only problem is that it's usually just listed as "confectioners' glaze" or "pharmaceutical glaze" so it may not be readily apparent to vegans or others who don't want to ingest insect products that they are indeed ingesting insect products.
So there you go. Bugs and butt stuff.
And that's just four. I'm sure I could fall into a deep deep Wikipedia hole, but I think that's enough knowledge for one day. The sick thing is that none of this knowledge will affect my eating habits. Unless you are growing all of your own food, you are probably consuming stuff you'd rather not know about. But I'd rather know things than not know things and these are fun facts to know and share when someone gets all smug about their "all natural" diet.
Follow @clairelizzie on twitter for more terrible knowledge or follow her on Instagram (@clairelizlower) for pics of salads and Angie.