From snail mucin to cochineal dye, here’s how people across the world are consuming some weird animal ingredients and still loving it.
The idea of consuming creepy creatures might be upsetting to some, but there are many beauty rituals that use bizarre animal ingredients. Think snails crawling on your face, fish pedicure, bird poop facial, snake or snail massage, and leech and urine therapy.
Then there are the cosmetics we use. Women love to pose for selfies with a close up of their puckered lips, but how many know that some lipsticks and blushers have cochineal dye, which is collected from crushed cochineal beetles? The insects feed on cactus plants in Central and South America and the females eat the red cactus berries. When they’re crushed, an intense red dye is produced. Mascaras and nail polishes also contain guanine, a crystalline shimmering substance found in crushed fish scales. Animal fat like tallow is common in eye makeup or makeup base. The carcasses of slaughtered animals are boiled to churn out a fatty substance, which is added to the base that you could be applying on your face almost every day. Squalene, an oil obtained from shark livers, finds widespread use in sunscreens, lipsticks, foundations, lotions and many other cosmetics. Even gelatin, used in cream-based cosmetics and even ice cream, is processed by boiling skin, tendons, ligaments and bones of animals.
Makeup removers, too, aren’t devoid of weird ingredients, as they contain lanolin, excretion from wool-bearing mammals. Ambergris, derived from the waxy oil that lines a whale’s stomach, is used for the scent in perfumes.
The icky factor doesn’t end here. Snail mucin is big in K-beauty for its hydrating potential and regeneration of skin, as it contains glycolic acid and glycoprotein enzymes. Snail slime, an unpleasant, slippery and thick semi-solid substance, is processed and packaged as creams, gels, serums, toners, moisturisers and gel face masks—experts say snail beauty therapy has been big in south Asian countries like Japan, China and the West for some time now. In fact, snail farming, known as heliciculture, involves raising land snails for human use: flesh is used as edible escargot, eggs as gourmet caviar and slime for cosmetics and pharmaceuticals.
Italy’s largest agriculture industry association Coldiretti recently estimated that 44,000 tonnes of live and preserved snails are produced annually in the country, making it an industry worth $292 million. “We are seeing record numbers of new avant-garde snail-production businesses,” claimed Roberto Moncalvo, president, Coldiretti. “We raise them naturally, feed them only vegetable matter and then extract the slime with water that contains ozone, which kills all the bacteria,” Moncalvo added (the lockdown has, however, had a negative impact on snail businesses in Italy because farmers haven’t been able to transport produce. The government has now set up a 100-million-euro fund to support agricultural businesses).
Closer home, the Nagas relish river snails cooked with dal. Speaking of food, even that industry isn’t far behind when it comes to making use of creepy and weird ingredients. If you love marshmallows, maybe you’ve been topping off a whole lot of animal protein on your scrumptious strawberry shake for years, as marshmallows are made from gelatin.
Some foods may be sweet in taste, but a slight mention of the ingredient will leave you sick. Take, for instance, a colourful candy coated with shellac, a sticky substance derived from the secretions of the female Kerria lacca, an insect native to Thailand. Jelly beans pack a punch of gooeyness but they use shellac too. And don’t be amazed if you find ocean saltwater injected into food. Some packaged meats like raw chicken may contain salt or other ingredients injected into them to enhance flavour and increase the weight.
Do you like sprinkling loads of shredded cheese on your pizza? Cheese has wood pulp, officially ascribed as ‘cellulose’ to boost fibre and add creaminess to low-fat foods and to help keep shredded cheese from clumping together. Ingredients like rennet, an enzyme found in the stomach of nursing cows, lambs and goats, which is extracted by killing the animal, are also found in cheese.
Chewing gum is made with lanolin—a secretion from the skin glands of sheep—which makes it chewy. Chewing gums that don’t use lanolin are often made out of synthetic rubbers instead. Canned mushrooms also have traces of maggots and mites. You may, in fact, find an average of 75 or more mites per 100 gm of drained mushrooms and the proportionate liquid in a can.
Even beers are filtered through isinglass, a gelatin made out of fish bladder. Animal rights group PETA, in fact, warns on its website that many wines “include blood and bone marrow, casein (milk protein), chitin (fibre from crustacean shells), egg albumen (derived from egg whites), fish oil, gelatin and isinglass”. The animals rights group has also asked luxury brands to stop using exotic skins, and wants a ban on their sale.
While that may still take some time, Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus crisis, has completely banned the consumption of wild animals and has made wildlife trade illegal. The ban includes all terrestrial animals, animals that live and reproduce in the wilderness, and precious aquatic wild animals. In April, the Chinese ministry of agriculture and rural affairs compiled a list of “special livestock”—non-domesticated animals like reindeer, alpaca, guinea fowl, ostrich and emu can be farmed for meat, while animals like mink, silver fox, arctic fox and raccoon dog can be farmed for fur. China has also upgraded the protection of the pangolin—believed to be the intermediate host of the virus—to that of first-class protected animal on a par with other endangered species like giant pandas. And Shenzhen has become the first Chinese city to ban the sale and consumption of dog and cat meat.
Colombia’s capital Bogota, one of the oldest bullfighting cities in the Americas, has also outlawed the mistreatment and killing of animals in a move aimed at eventually banning the events. The Scottish government is also going to ban the fish farming industry from shooting seals to save a 180-million-pound export business to the US, which plans to stop import of fish from countries which allow seals to be killed to protect fisheries, as per reports.