A friend of mine turned me on to the show “Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution”, knowing how much I love to decipher food labels and mystery ingredients. My husband and I have watched several episodes and are in total amazement at what we’ve learned. One of the most enlightening episodes was where Jamie visited a Culinary Arts classroom at a Los Angeles prep school and did a hands on demonstration using a summer favorite…ice cream sundaes. After putting out ice cream, bowls, and an array of traditional toppings such as cookie crumbs, M&Ms, sprinkles, and such, and letting the students create their own sundae and begin eating, he dropped the bomb! In a very eye opening way. He took a trifle dish and began layering it with duck feathers, human hair, shellac, beetles, and other assorted ingredients and let the students know that the toppings in their bowl most likely contained some of those exact ingredients!
One of the ones that stuck with me was L-Cysteine. I’ve seen the word, but never paid much attention to what it was. But after seeing that, I will now! Let me share with you what I’ve found…
The non-essential amino acid L-cysteine is a derivative of human hair that is commonly used in food production as a dough softener, flavor enhancer, and sometimes as a dietary supplement. L-cysteine is found in the majority of pizza doughs, cookies, pastas, pastries and fast food buns.
How is L-cysteine produced?
Ten years ago the most way to obtain L-cysteine on industrial scale was through hydrolysis of human hair found on the floors of Chinese barbershops. Today, approximately 80% of it is derived from duck feathers.
At least two forms of synthetic L-cysteine have been produced. One is made with non-animal enzymes and the other is made using corn sugar as the growth medium. Since both forms are expensive, they are not commonly used.
Restaurant Chains and Foods containing L-cysteine:
From what I read, McDonald’s uses L-cysteine derived from duck feathers is in their Honey Wheat Roll, the Deluxe Warm Cinnamon Roll, and the Baked Apple Pie.
Wendy’s uses L-cysteine in their Premium Sandwich Buns and their tortillas
Dunkin’ Donuts listed several items using L-cysteine derived from duck feathers.
Burger King said that it “could not guarantee” the source of L-cysteine in its products.
On the other hand, Subway announced in March 2007 that it has removed the L-cysteine from its otherwise animal product-free Carb Conscious Wrap.
Domino’s Pizza said that their L-cysteine is “microbially derived” or synthetic in its Hand-Tossed Crust and informed us that the L-cysteine in Domino’s Breadsticks, Cheesy Bread, and Cinna Stix is “vegetable-derived.”
Most people initial reactions when finding out that their cookie dough ice cream contains by-products of human hair or duck feathers is one of disgust. However, L-cysteine is still a non-essential amino acid that is produced in the human body. Some people even take it as a supplement to improve hair and nail growth.
L-cysteine is considered a substance that is “generally regarded as safe” by the FDA (Food and Drug Administration). It must be labeled by its “common and usual name, L-cysteine, on food packages.
Next time, we’ll talk about the candy coating on your sweets that comes from the rear end of a beetle! Stay tuned!