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Strange food ingredients exposed

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Consumers are growing wary of the food processing industry due to recent stories about "pink slime" and "meat glue."

These strange ingredients have driven people to wonder, "What exactly am I eating?"

"I enjoyed eating meat and I enjoyed eating seafood," said Alabama resident Lois Danner.

She does not enjoy those foods anymore, only because she no longer eats them. Danner's entire diet is now comprised of plant-based and whole foods. She is a vegan, consuming no dairy, no meat and no seafood.

Danner made the switch after doing extensive research. She said she believes a vegan diet is the key to health. Danner attended workshops with researchers in California who have conducted studies supporting her position.

"Cut the C.R.A.P.," said Danner, quoting a mantra from one of the researchers. "Don't eat calorie-rich and processed foods, and you'll be healthy."

Danner changed her lifestyle for health reasons, but many other changes are happening in the dining landscape because of concern over the way food is processed. Public outrage over "pink slime" prompted officials in grocery stores and school lunch directors to make changes.

Dr. Christy Bratcher, a meat science professor at Auburn University, explained the meat industry refers to "pink slime" as lean, finely textured beef.

"It's still beef. It started out as beef; it ended as beef, and we consume it as beef," Bratcher said.

What happens in between that beginning and end, however, is what has people concerned. Bratcher explained the process to create lean, finely textured beef.

First, they mechanically separate beef trimmings from a carcass, scraping and gathering the meat from areas not previously salvageable for human consumption. Next, they put those trimmings all together in a giant mixing bowl and centrifuge them on low heat. Finally, the mixture is puffed with ammonia gas to remove bacteria. Bratcher said the ammonia combines with the water in the meat to make ammonium hydroxide, a substance found naturally in the human body. The process is USDA-approved.

"It makes our ground beef that we consume cheaper because we can use more of the carcass and not have to put that carcass into other products that wouldn't be used to human consumption," she said.

"Pink slime" isn't labeled separately on packaging as anything but beef, because it is beef. However, critics argue the people eating it have a right to know when this process is used.

Another hot topic in food also involves meat. Its science name is transglutaminase or "TG," but you may have heard of it as "meat glue." The enzyme earned its nickname from its function -- it sticks different cuts of meat together.

"Consumers get the idea that we're taking Elmer's glue and using it like a craft that kids would do and gluing meat together and sticking it," Bratcher said. "That's completely not true."'

"TG" comes from plants and it is used to help cut down on costs. Two oddly-shaped cuts of meat can be "glued" together for more even cooking times and less waste. Bratcher said for every "strange ingredient" you hear about, the food processing industry has a reason behind it and can guarantee it is safe.

Her colleague Dr. Leonard Bell agrees.

"The food industry uses these ingredients for specific functions. To make it taste better, to make it look better, to make it safer," said Bell, who also works as a professor at Auburn in the Food Science department. "A lot of these ingredients have been used for many, many years."

Ingredients like extracts from insects in colored candy, extracts from duck feathers and hair in bread or enzymes from beaver anal glands as flavoring. Bell said it's very important to remember they're not just throwing insects and feathers into your food.

"Obviously that would be quite disgusting to think about, but when you take these products and you treat them with specific processes {to gain extracts}, it's no longer duck feathers, it's no longer hair, it's no longer an animal protein," he said.

Bell and Bratcher both said as long as you eat a variety of foods in moderation, you'll be healthy. However, Danner will not be changing her ways based on their advice.

"There's not been one scientific study ever that has said that there's anything about plant food that's bad for you, while there have been some about dairy, meat and cholesterol, shellfish, mercury in salmon," Danner said. "There are just a lot of reasons to do these things."

Some might call trading in your teriyaki chicken for tofu an extreme measure, but Danner believes giving yourself diabetes or heart disease from your food choices is the true extreme choice.

"I would much rather be eating a vegan lifestyle to help myself than to go through heart surgery. I mean this is easy," she said. "You only have one body and one life, and you need to make the best of it."

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