L-cysteine is an amino acid used to extend the shelf life of commercial bread products and is most commonly synthesized from human hair. But no one eats processed food with the illusion that they're not eating something at least a bit gross.
Photo via Flickr user Nick Saltmarsh
We still don't know what's in our food.
At least that's what UK reports into food production, post-horsemeat scandal, are suggesting. It's why ministers have backed a new call for a Food Crime Unit to ensure that customers can have far greater, if not absolute, trust in what they're eating.
Surreptitious equine DNA in supermarket lasagnas is one thing, but what about the commodities we take for granted? The day-to-day staples that we rely on like electricity and hot water? Take bread for example. Unless you're buying limited batch loaves from a local bakery, chances are you won't be able to be sure what's in it. If you're buying your loaf from a commercial producer, it'll probably contain human hair.
You heard. Amino acids are the building blocks of life, but they're not all created in the same way. L-cysteine, for example, is an amino acid used to extend shelf-life in things like commercial, factory-made bread, and it's most often synthesised from human hair (as well as duck feathers, cow horns and pig bristles). The hair—mostly gathered from the floors of hair salons in China, it seems—is dissolved in acid and, through chemical isolation, the L-cysteine is isolated, packed up and shipped off to commercial bread producers.
When you're sweeping up the last crumbs of your toast from store-bought sliced bread tomorrow morning, just think, this could have been someone's ponytail once.
If the thought makes you balk, a surefire way of avoiding the whole human hair thing is to only buy your bread from a baker, as L-cysteine isn't an additive in flour. You should probably shirk fast food outfits like Dunkin' Donuts and Burger King, though, as they have been reported to use L-cysteine. McDonalds say they use it, but that it's "a fully synthetic material and is not derived from hair or animal origin." No bangs in your buns there, then.
The question remains, though—how much should something like L-cysteine in our bread bother us? If you eat processed food—we all do, at least sometimes—are you not, in the moment you purchase and then, later, eat it, surrendering to the fact that you pretty much have no idea what's in it? Save the biochemists and militant nutritionists out there, who can actually decipher what half the things listed in those labels are anyway? If you're eating a bag of greasy, factory-made crisps, you're not labouring under any illusion that you're doing something virtuous. You are eating crisps because they taste amazing and you trust that there's nothing in them that's going to kill you. Not immediately, at least.
We eat ducks. We eat cows (albeit not the horns). We are human. And while the idea of eating super-synthesised chemical products isn't the most palatable thing, for it to come from a natural source is, surely, not that gag-making? Being okay with eating commercial bread that might contain L-cysteine doesn't mean you have some dormant cannibalistic tendencies, it just means you're realistic about what goes into commercially-made food products.
The idea that a bricks-and-mortar, family-feeding foodstuff like bread has hidden menace, as many internet outlets suggest using words like "lurking" and "dark story", is a bit silly. What about the bleaching process of the flour used to make white loaves so white? How is an organic derivative worse than that? L-cysteine has even shown promise in the treatment of colitis (an inflammatory bowel disease).
Still, imagine being the first person who saw the soft, merkin-like piles of fallen hair on the salon floor and thought, yeah, I can make bread with that.