You probably don’t want to think about what happens to your food after you swallow.
But what if your food’s journey to the plate were just as unthinkable as the miracle of digestion? Sometimes it is.
Look at anything closely—pocket lint, thimbles, literally anything—and you’ll find something in the history or the science that makes you recoil. The difference between non-food things and food, of course, is that you don’t have to eat those non-food things (and in fact you should not). Recoiling from food poses unique problems.
That’s why we’re so sorry for what we are about to report:
1. Pringles were chips. Then they weren’t. Then they were. Are. What?
There can’t be a snack as storied and myth-rich as Pringles. The guy who invented the process that cooks them also wrote the Ulysses of science fiction. Ursula K. Le Guin once called him “our Melville” (so maybe he wrote the Moby Dick of sci fi, but you get the point: big, barely readable books). And the guy who invented the Pringles canister was later buried in one.
To top it all off, there’s been a long and bitter battle over what a Pringle actually is.
Pringles are the particle board of the snack world. They’re manufactured more than baked; they’re made by obliterating potatoes, then recombining the potato-dust into that iconic parabola. They’re also wildly popular.
That combination didn’t sit well with competing potato chip manufacturers when Pringles appeared on the scene. In 1975, about 100 smaller snack providers banded together against Procter & Gamble (who created Pringles and brought them to market, until Diamond Foods purchased the brand in 2011).
The struggle played out on the battlefield of the Food and Drug Administration. The small players didn’t want P&G to be able to market Pringles as “chips.” They preferred that era’s Webster’s definition: “thin slices of raw potato fried in deep fat.” Whatever a Pringle was, it wasn’t that.
Eventually, the FDA compromised. They decided that the Pringles packaging could include the words “potato chips made from dried potatoes” as long as the type was “not less than one-half the size of the largest type in which the words ‘potato chips” appear.”
P&G threw up their hands and called their product “crisps.” The brand did quite well, no matter what you call them. Once the people of the world popped, they found, they could not stop.
Fast forward to 2009, when a British court decided that the FDA wasn’t being quite fair. Certainly, Pringles are potato chips, the Supreme Court of Judicature insisted. This time, P&G was on the other side of the argument.
“Oh no,” they claimed. “Pringles are ‘savory snacks.'” The distinction may seem small, but there was a lot of money on the line. The UK places a value-added tax on potato chips, and P&G hadn’t been paying.
The Court decided Pringles are chips after all. Procter & Gamble found itself on the hook for $155 million in back taxes. Plus, they’d have to pay $31 million per year in an ongoing Pringle tax. Shoot, they must have said. We may as well just sell the brand.
2. A German TV station dared a scientist to transform peanut butter into a diamond. He did.
Dan Frost is a modern-day alchemist. Instead of turning lead into gold, though, his gig involves turning…stuff…into diamonds.
While that sounds like the craziest get-rich-quick scheme on the internet, it’s actually educational. Frost is a scientist at Germany’s Bayerisches Geoinstitut where he’s trying to figure out the process by which the Earth was formed.
Frost’s theory is not as dense as a diamond, but it’s close, so bear with us. He suspects that Earth cooled down enough to bear life when a critical mass of carbon dioxide, that famous greenhouse gas, was pulled out of the atmosphere. How did this happen? It could be that the early Earth’s natural geographic processes drew the CO2 deep into the mantle of the planet.
There, if Frost’s theory is right, the gas was subjected to intense heat and pressure. Meanwhile, iron in the mantle leached away the oxygen, leaving pure carbon. Let’s see: Carbon, heat, and pressure. That’s the recipe for a diamond.
In order to test his hypothesis, Frost subjected CO2 to some extreme conditions: 4,000 degrees and pressure that’s 1.3 million times greater than the surface atmosphere. It took a while, and the results weren’t big enough to fill a ring, but Frost got his diamonds.
That’s when the TV station got involved. Theoretically, since carbon is in just about everything, Frost would be able to make a diamond out of anything. The TV people asked Frost to make diamonds from peanut butter, and he did. But not without a mess.
“A lot of hydrogen was released that destroyed the experiment,” Frost told the BBC. “But only after it had been converted to diamond.”
3. Figs are made of wasps. Sort of.
Forget everything you thought you knew about the fig. It is not a fruit. Early humans domesticated fig trees before they bothered with grain crops. The fig does exist outside of Fig Newtons. And, inside many figs, the corpses of wasps have been entombed and dissolved.
Here’s what we mean: First off, a fig is technically not a fruit, but a type of inflorescence known as a spadix. (Big science words, but unavoidable here.) That’s a bundle of multiple flowers and seeds sealed away in a bulbous ovoid. (More science words.)
In order to get pollen from one of these internal flowers to the next, nature had to devise a creature that felt like boring into the spherical stem and scooting from flower to seed. Enter the fig wasp.
Fig wasp queens squeeze through a tiny opening in the fig’s ostiole, a sort of vegetable pore. They think they’re just there to lay eggs, which they are, but meanwhile they’re spreading fig pollen, inadvertently fertilizing the seeds.
It’s a one-way trip. Once the queen lays her eggs, she dies inside the pulpy center of the fig. Then the fig digests her body. She becomes one with the fig. When her eggs hatch, the wingless male wasps dig a hole through the fig’s lining. The winged females escape to start the whole process over again, but the males spend their entire lives inside the fig, eventually succumbing to the same fate that took their queen.
But don’t let this turn you off of figs forever. If you buy a fig at the grocery store, it’s probably a domesticated variety, which doesn’t host fig wasps. Pluck a fig from a wild fig tree, though, and chow down, and you’re probably going to end up eating some wasp bits—which are not strictly vegan, we’re sorry to say.
4. Americans waste 40 percent of all the food in the country.
Maybe the most horrifying thing about food is how much of it we waste in the U.S. At a time when one out of six Americans doesn’t have enough to eat, we somehow find a way to send 40 percent of the edible food in the nation to the landfill, uneaten.
The problem is not just wasteful; it’s an environmental disaster. The Natural Resources Defense Council points out that food rotting away in the landfill makes up a huge portion of the country’s total emissions of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Producing food is environmentally costly, as well. Ten percent of the country’s energy expenditures go toward agriculture, as does half of the land and 80 percent of the water we use. So if any of these stories make you want to throw out your Pringles, your peanut butter, or your figs, think twice before you do. Food can be gross and weird, but it is always precious.