30 Strange Ingredients in Your Favorite Fast Food Dishes

By Jake Schroeder
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In the wondrous age of convenience, fast food restaurants offer a way to enjoy a quick bite without having to prepare food yourself. Of course, everyone knows that fast food isn't the healthiest option due to the high levels of calories, sugars and fats, but the problem actually goes much deeper than that.

Some of the hidden ingredients in fast food are actually far more unsettling than the details of nutritional breakdown. If you eat a lot of fast food, the truth is you’re putting some really sketchy stuff in your mouth without even realizing it. Here are 30 strange ingredients found in your favorite fast food dishes.

Azodicarbonamide: Subway's "Better Bread" Chemical

Do you frequently chow down on a popular $5 footlong? Subway is one of the biggest sandwich chains nationwide, so you’re not alone. The company is known for its wide selection of toppings, meats and cheeses served on a variety of delicious breads. However, the company received criticism after consumers found out the bread includes one hard-to-pronounce ingredient: azodicarbonamide.

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What is it, and where else can you find this chemical? Azodicarbonamide is added to yoga mats and shoes to improve their elasticity. The "dough conditioner" works in bread to improve the texture of the final loaf. In 2014, Subway released a public statement claiming that azodicarbonamide is an "extremely common bread ingredient that is fully approved...by the FDA." Nonetheless, the company has since dropped the ingredient from its bread recipe.

Roof Sealant for Breakfast

These days, grabbing breakfast from a fast food drive-thru adds convenience to the start of many people's workdays. One of the most popular items on fast food breakfast menus is the simple egg sandwich. Unfortunately, you aren't just getting bread, meat, cheese and eggs when you consume an egg sandwich.

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Forbes writer David DiSalvo took a look at some of the unknown ingredients in the "premium egg blend" that is mixed into these sandwiches. His findings? Calcium silicate is found in egg blends — as well as in sealant products for roofs. Also present is glycerin, which is a solvent used in soap, and dimethylpolysiloxane, which can be found in Silly Putty.

Wendy's Secret Chili Ingredient

In 2015, satire news site News Buzz Daily reported that Wendy's was using rat and horse meat in its famous chili. Although this absurd claim was quickly proven to be false, one of Wendy's actual chili ingredients certainly might surprise you: silicon dioxide. Why does that sound familiar? If you had geology in school, you might remember it as a primary ingredient in sand and quartz.

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Why does Wendy's use silicon dioxide in its chili? Essentially, it makes the chili look appealing by preventing the soup-like mixture from forming yucky clumps as it simmers. The idea seems to be that the clumps would likely turn customers off more than the knowledge of the unique additive. At least the company’s website promises the meat is all pure ground beef.


Taco Bell's Funky Beef Mixture

If you swing by Taco Bell frequently, you already know most products on the menu contain the restaurant’s signature beef. However, after the company admitted to the public that their beef products only contain 88% beef, everyone began questioning the remaining 12% of ingredients. The extra ingredients have some funky names, but Taco Bell claims they're completely safe and you already eat them every day.

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Trehalose and Maltodextrin are two sugars that Taco Bell adds to improve the natural flavor of its beef. Then, sodium phosphates help give the beef a desirable texture, while the soy lecithin additive helps bond the meat together during the cooking process so it’s not so crumbly and messy. In theory, you can at least admire the brand's transparency.

Antifreeze in Salad Leaves

Have you ever wondered how restaurants keep their salad lettuces so crisp and fresh when lettuce is so prone to quickly wilt? Fast food joints have found a unique way to keep their leaves crisp, fresh and ready for consumption. However, the lettuce's "freshness" is dependent on a fairly atypical added ingredient.

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Propylene glycol is considered safe for consumption, yet it isn't commonly used for food products. Why? You can find propylene glycol in antifreeze (yikes!) and sexual lubricant (gross!). Although it's hard to imagine consuming another fast food salad after learning this, it’s true that the chemical isn't toxic to humans when consumed, even if it does a killer job as an antifreeze agent.

McDonald's Surprise Mass Menu Ingredient

Like McDonald’s? Get ready to consume a petroleum product that is impossible to pronounce with your meal. Tertiary butylhydroquinone (TBHQ) is an antioxidant found in a variety of products, many of which are hanging on pegs in the beauty aisle. TBHQ is frequently used as an ingredient in skin care products and cosmetics, yet it's also in many of the food products you consume.

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Besides being found in popcorn and butter, tertiary butylhydroquinone is an acknowledged component in many McDonald's menu items. In fact, it can be found in a whopping 18 of the chain’s products, including the famed chicken nuggets. The antioxidant is used as a preservative to keep fats and oils from deteriorating or becoming rancid.


Apple Pie with Duck Feathers

Feeling peckish for something sweet? You might want to think twice before ordering an apple pie from the McDonald's menu. The yummy dessert contains an ingredient called l-cysteine. Although the name of the additive may sound a bit like a weird vitamin or mineral, it’s actually synthesized from two unsettling natural sources: duck feathers and human hair.

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What exactly does l-cysteine do for your food? It interacts with bread dough to make it pliable. The ingredient isn't just found in McDonald's apple pie; it’s also in several other fast food chains' bread and pastry products. Is it harmful to consume? No, but it certainly might gross you out to know what’s in it.

Sawdust on the Side

You've likely heard the word before, but do you actually know what cellulose is? The ingredient comes from wood pulp, and (strangely) you can find it in a variety of dishes, including Wendy's Frosties. Although you may not ever understand how wood pulp could fit into food recipes, cellulose saves fast food giants a pretty penny every year.

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Essentially, it’s a cheap alternative to traditional thickeners and stabilizers, such as flour and oil. Rather than using these natural food products, companies utilize cellulose to help control the texture and stability of foods, from dairy and meat products to breadings and coatings.

Tomato Sauce with Fruit Flies and Maggots

You can find tomato-based products at a majority of fast food joints. From feasting on house-made ketchup to chowing down on pizza with tomato sauce, you frequently dig in to tomato products at almost any type of restaurant. Did you know that tomato products are a breeding ground for fruit flies and maggots? Yes, you read that right.

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Fruit flies and maggots adore tomatoes, particularly tomato sauce, and they love laying their eggs in the mixture. Shockingly, the FDA standards for egg and maggot contamination in these sauces are much looser than you would ever imagine. Restaurants are required to serve sauces that have no more than 30 fruit fly eggs and/or one maggot per 100 grams of sauce. Gross!


Antidepressants in Chicken Dishes

Back in 2012, John Hopkins University decided to test a number of factories’ chicken feathers to evaluate the ingredients that were going into their chicken feed. What they uncovered was the chickens were consuming a vast amount of unauthorized additives, antioxidants and other ingredients, some of which were banned.

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Among the dangerous additives, they found antidepressants, including an ingredient found in Prozac, fluoxetine. Acetaminophen, which is used in the painkiller Tylenol, was another ingredient in the feeding regimen. Researchers also found a number of antibiotics that were banned for use in chicken feed. If you’re thinking of skipping out on the chicken sandwich during your next fast food stop, you’re not alone.

Ammonium Sulfate for the Perfect Buns

What wouldn't a baker do to achieve a perfect, golden loaf of bread? Cutting out chemicals doesn't seem to be an option. Many restaurants use something called ammonium sulfate in their bread recipes. What is the most common purpose for ammonium sulfate? It’s typically used as a soil fertilizer — but that’s just the beginning.

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It's also an ingredient in products like herbicides and insecticides. That certainly doesn’t make it suitable to put in your body, but at low levels, ammonium sulfate is completely safe. It enhances yeast growth and helps the bread rise, producing a gorgeous, golden finish each time it's used in baking.

Crushed Bugs to Make Carminic Acid

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This ingredient has been criticized on many previous occasions. Still, the source of the additive will never become any less yucky. Carminic acid is a type of dye that provides desirable red color for many of your favorite fast foods. Believe it or not, the word "acid" isn't what should turn you off the most about this red dye product.

Carminic acid can't be made in a lab. Instead, it’s extracted from the crushed-up bodies of a certain type of female insect called cochineal. These insects produce a red dye when their bodies are pulverized. Although it’s a fairly disgusting ingredient to put in food, it's technically all-natural and harmless. If not hurting you is all you’re worried about, then you’re good to go.


Cancer-Causing Sodium Nitrate

Sodium nitrate is found in many fast food meat products, including bacon. It preserves and cures deli meats, ensuring they remain fresh for longer periods to give restaurants (and you at home) more time to use them. The chemical is also used as a meat coloring agent and is what gives many deli meats their pretty pink color.

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Although it sounds like a helpful ingredient — who doesn't appreciate fresh meat? — sodium nitrate has some serious drawbacks. The International Agency for the Research of Cancer examined the long-term effects of ingesting nitrates, and they identified a clear link between sodium nitrate and certain cancers. Although minimal amounts shouldn't harm you, eating sodium nitrate frequently could increase your risk of developing these diseases.

Cancerous Caramel Food Coloring

Do you know about the dangers of caramel coloring? It's hard to believe that one of the most popular food coloring products is so detrimental to your physical wellbeing, but it’s true. Caramel food coloring is utilized in thousands of fast food products, including popular soft drinks, fast food sauces and more. Unfortunately, the widespread use doesn't mean the ingredient is safe.

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In fact, caramel coloring has made the Center for Science in the Public Interest's list of additives that you should never consume due to the health risks. What makes the ingredient so dangerous? The additive, which is produced by a reaction between sugar, sulfites and ammonia, releases chemicals that are linked to numerous types of cancer and leukemia. It’s best to stick to clear drinks and untinted foods.

KFC’s 200-Ingredient Pot Pie

The surprise here isn't merely the content of the ingredients, but how many ingredients there are. KFC's chicken pot pie has far more components than just dough, chicken, vegetables and heavy cream. There are more than 200 ingredients in a single KFC chicken pot pie (most you probably can't pronounce). That would almost be impressive — if it wasn’t so horrifying.

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In addition to the expected ingredients, like chicken stock, potatoes, carrots, peas and cream, you find a laundry list of complex salts, sugars, amino acids, chemicals, antioxidants and micronutrients. Although the majority of the ingredients seem to be naturally occurring and perfectly safe (even the difficult-to-pronounce ones), it's bizarre to imagine such a simple, down-home meal having so many ingredients.


Try Sounding This One Out

Try saying this five times fast: polydimethylsiloxane. This additive is found in a wide variety of fast foods and fountain drinks. What does it do? It’s added to drink machines as well as hot oil to prevent foaming in the fry bins, which, in turn, prevents splattering of the hot oil.

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The non-toxic additive can be found in trace amounts in everything from French fries and chicken nuggets to fruit smoothies. So, what makes the ingredient so odd? Polydimethylsiloxane is a type of silicone and is a primary component in Silly Putty, contact lenses, medical devices and shampoo. Doesn’t sound very appetizing, does it?

Titanium Dioxide in Ranch Dressing

Ordering a salad at a fast food restaurant can feel like a healthier choice than options like burgers, nuggets and fries. However, your choice of salad dressing can make a big difference in the healthiness of the meal, particularly when you consider the dressing's ingredients. What is so dangerous about salad dressing?

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Ranch dressing is one of the most popular salad dressings, but it has a strange additive: titanium dioxide. This is what gives dressings like ranch and blue cheese their pure white color. Of course, the metal-based chemical is also found in paint and sunblock, which is why using it as a food ingredient is gradually becoming more controversial. France is currently in the process of banning its use.

Shellac Shines Apples

Apples are another seemingly healthy choice found on many menus. Many fast food restaurants, including Panera, offer apples or tasty fruits in place of fries, bread or other less nutritious choices. Still, not even a simple apple can outrun the yucky ingredients list when it comes to the additives used in the various presentations.

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What keeps apples looking so shiny, fresh and crisp in restaurant desserts? Shellac. Yes, the same shellac that is used in furniture polish. Not gross enough? The source of the shellac is even more unsettling. It’s made from the excretions of an insect in Thailand called the Kerria lacca. On many ingredient lists, shellac is merely listed as "confectioner's glaze."


Vegetable Oil in Cola

Are you the type of person who typically orders a fountain drink to go with your meal? You're certainly not alone. However, one of the ingredients found in many popular sodas may (finally) change your perspective on fountain drinks: brominated vegetable oil (BVO). Brands like Coca-Cola and Pepsi have included BVO in various products at one point or another.

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Now, BVO is banned in several locations worldwide, and several soda brands have pulled the ingredient from their recipes. Why? BVO contains bromine, a toxic chemical that can be found in another scary substance: toxic flame retardant. It's definitely not something you want to come in contact with, much less consume.

High Amounts of High Fructose Corn Syrup

There are plenty of reasons not to consume fountain drinks from fast food joints (or otherwise). Another dangerous ingredient in soda is also one of the most common ingredients in some of your favorite fatty and sugary foods: high fructose corn syrup (HFCS). Consumers tend to love the sickly sweet taste of soda, and restaurants make sure they have plenty of machines primed and ready to serve it.

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The result is more than just a dry mouth. HFCS wages war on your internal organs, deteriorates your tooth enamel, leads to weight gain and diabetes and much more. In fact, sipping a soft drink at a fast food restaurant may be more detrimental to your system than consuming pure sugar.

Hundreds of Cows Worth of Beef

When ordering a hamburger or cheeseburger from McDonald's, you may not give a thought to the cow that went into the making of your burger. As it turns out, far more than one cow's meat goes into a single Big Mac. In fact, due to the nature of the meat-mixing process, approximately 100 cows can contribute to one patty. Crazy, right?

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With an incredible amount of transparency, McDonald's opened up on its website about the obscure number of cows that go into making a single burger. "In the blending process, we do mix beef from different delivery batches, and the resulting batches can be made up of the meat from more than 100 cattle."


Bone, Fat and Tendon Nuggets

For ages, consumers have joked that the nuggets at popular chains probably include strange ingredients like ostrich, cat, dog or turkey rather than chicken. These urban legends, of course, are always proven false by researchers. However, research has uncovered a scary fact about the parts of the chicken that compose a typical chicken nugget.

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In a 2013 study published in The American Journal of Medicine, researchers revealed that the typical chicken nugget is made of chicken — but not the parts of the bird you might expect. Instead, your favorite nuggets are mostly made of bones, tendons and fat. Can you look at nuggets the same way again? Good luck.

Half-Real Slices of Cheese

Those who enjoy cheeseburgers know how appetizing a slice of cheddar, Swiss, pepper jack or American cheese can be when crowning a burger patty. You may be surprised to learn that the gooey, melt-in-your-mouth cheese you've been eating at fast food joints is only partially cheese. What else can be found in your favorite "dairy" slices?

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Approximately 50% of each slice is actually cheese, but the other 50% consists of a variety of chemicals and fats. Cheese full of these types of additives has a longer shelf life and a more uniform look, so you always get the recognizable orange half-cheese you expect. This type of cheese product is less flavorful than 100% cheese, but it’s also almost impossible to burn.

Beaver-Secretion Milkshakes

Why wait to eat dessert when you can sip on chocolate, vanilla or strawberry milkshakes along with your meal? Most fast food restaurants offer a variety of shakes to enjoy alongside your burger and fries. Of course, you might feel inclined to hold off on indulging your sweet tooth when you find out one of the main flavoring ingredients for these delicious drinks.

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To bump up the sweetness of their shakes, companies don't use extra sugars or artificial sweetening products. Instead, they add castoreum — which comes from the anal glands of beavers. The disgusting ingredient happens to smell just like vanilla. While anything "vanilla" is pleasant in theory, it’s a pretty strange thing to ever make its way into milkshakes.


Hair-Removing Sodium Acid Pyrophosphate

McDonald's is known for its fresh salty fries. Many people go there just for the savory side dish. What makes the fries so golden and crispy? A chemical called sodium acid pyrophosphate ensures your fries don't turn soggy and brown while sitting under the heating lights.

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Sodium acid pyrophosphate is actually used a lot in fast food dishes. It helps bread rise and enhances meat flavor. Its other applications include helping remove hair and feathers in poultry and livestock as well as aiding in the removal of iron stains. In controlled amounts, the additive can't hurt you, but it’s still not appealing to think of it sprinkled on your fries to keep them looking fresh.

"Pink Slime" Meat Trimmings

This one might leave a nasty taste in your mouth. Often referred to as "pink slime," lean finely textured beef (LFTB) is meat trimmings. The trimmings are made up of connective tissue and added into packaged meat as a filler. In the past, pink slime has also been used in fast food meat dishes, such as beef burgers.

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Besides coming from leftover garbage, what makes these trimmings so unappetizing? They're treated with a corrosive additive: ammonia. Yes, the same chemical you can probably find among your household cleaning products. Plus, because LFTB doesn't contain any animal muscle, it's technically not meat. Thankfully, most fast-food places have stopped using LFTB — but only after the public called them out on the gross ingredient.

Flavor-Enhancing Monosodium Glutamate

Chick-fil-a specializes in one food: chicken. But what really makes their chicken stand out from the offerings at restaurants like McDonald's or Wendy's? It might be the use of flavor-boosting monosodium glutamate (MSG). Although you’ve probably heard of MSG before, you may not realize it’s found in some of your favorite Chick-fil-a dishes.

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This amino-acid sodium salt goes beyond typical additives to enhance the flavor of food. MSG has endured a lot of hatred across the years, with consumers complaining the additive has made them lightheaded, nauseous or even ill. However, the FDA claims MSG is perfectly safe in regulated amounts, but going overboard with sodium in your diet can lead to feeling lethargic.


Phthalates in Fruits and Veggies

These days, you can find fruits and veggies on plenty of fast food menus. Everything from cucumbers to avocados are served on burgers, and fruit cups are becoming more popular as side dishes. No matter how healthy fruits and veggies start out, they often end up containing a concerning chemical found in pesticides.

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Phthalates are found in a variety of produce items, such as carrots, tomatoes and cucumbers. You can also find this plasticizing agent in a variety of non-edible products, such as plastic bins, shower curtains, vinyl disks and even automobiles. Unfortunately, fruits and veggies don't require nutrition labels, so it's hard to tell just how many phthalates are in any given produce.

Pancake Batter in an Omelet Recipe

Although many people love IHOP for their pancakes, the omelets are definitely a solid competing menu item. The fluffiness of the egg-based dish is what gives it such a positive reputation. Believe it or not, these omelets don't owe their texture to any heavy cream or egg-related ingredient. You might be surprised to learn the ingredient that results in the airiness.

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IHOP mixes its signature ingredient — creamy pancake batter — into eggs to make deliciously fluffy omelets. How else could they create such a cloud-like treat? Unfortunately, that means that anyone with a gluten allergy or sensitivity or anyone just following a gluten-free or low-carb diet can’t dig in to one of the chain’s famed omelets.

The Squid Ink Kuro Burger

Across the globe, many popular fast food chains feature items that are only accessible in certain locations. Many U.S. citizens have felt pangs of jealousy over the menu choices available elsewhere, from the Netherlands' Nacho Whopper to Malaysia's Golden Fortune Pizza Hut pizza. Still, plenty of people were mostly confused over the black burger that hit Japanese Burger Kings in 2014.

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Photo Courtesy: Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

Lucky consumers in Japan got to try the Kuro burger, which featured a stunning array of black ingredients, including the bun, cheese, ketchup and onions. How did Burger King achieve the dark color of the ingredients? The buns and cheese relied on bamboo charcoal for their coloring, while the ketchup and onions were dyed black with squid ink. A strange idea from start to finish!