Mind & Body

Should You Worry About a Hair in Your Food?

Don't freak out, but there's totally a long, brown strand of hair poking out of your burrito. No, seriously, do not panic. A hair lying across your dinner is completely benign. In fact, plenty of foods you eat every day contain human hair. Note to the squeamish: Turn back now.

Spaghetti and Hairballs, Anyone?

The ick factor of seeing a hair tangled into your meal is undeniable. Although it's gag-worthy to discover, the stuff is essentially harmless among your grub. Yum. The FDA guidelines don't have a limit on strands per plate, and it doesn't even include hair on the list of "natural or unavoidable defects" in foods. Hungry yet? Hair is made of a protein called keratin (same stuff as your fingernails), and keratin is chemically inactive in your locks. That means it isn't going to set off digestive issues.

Maria Colavincenzo, a dermatologist at Northwestern University with a specialty in hair, tells Popular Science that it's feasible for a little bit of staph bacteria to piggyback on a hair or two. Even still, the amount of staph a few strands could carry probably isn't enough to cause you gastrointestinal problems. The FDA hasn't received reports of anyone getting sick from ingesting hair found in food. According to Colavincenzo, you'd have to eat a full head's worth of hair to cause digestive issues. So, hopefully, that means you're safe.

Structure of L-cysteine.

Well, That Escalated Quickly

Now that you've gotten your sigh of relief, let's kick things up a notch. Plenty of the foods you eat every day contain human hair on purpose. We'll give you a moment to let that sink in. L-cysteine (L-cys) is an amino acid in keratin that is commonly synthesized from human hair and used in breads and doughs. Manufacturers can extract L-cys from duck feathers, cow horns, and pig bristles, too. But, apparently, human hair yields more L-cys than other materials.

L-cys extends the shelf life of bread products and also helps taste buds detect salty, savory flavors. No need to panic: This stuff is clean. Human hair is boiled in hydrochloric acid to extract the L-cys from the keratin. That's good news, right? In an effort to not end this article on a weird note, L-cys may be beneficial in treating colitis. But rest assured, whether it's L-cys in your toast or a strand on your pizza, hair is by far not the worst thing that can happen to your meal.

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Curious about what else is in your food? Check out "A Consumer's Dictionary of Food Additives, 7th Edition: Descriptions in Plain English of More Than 12,000 Ingredients Both Harmful and Desirable Found in Foods" by Ruth Winter. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto July 26, 2017

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