Food is a central part of our lives, our cultures, and even our urban myths. Many media-perpetuated and classroom-circulated legends center around common snacks, fast food chains — even water — and our concerns or fears, even if unfounded, about them. Here’s how many of them began; which are true; which are false; and which are somewhere in between.
We’ve all heard the gendered stereotype that women reach for chocolate after a breakup or other emotional turmoil, and maybe they’re onto something. Studies show that chocolate can ease symptoms of premenstrual syndrome such as anxiety and suppress feelings of fatigue and irritation. In fact, chocolate’s mood-altering effects are caused by a release of neurochemicals such as serotonin, especially in combination with carbohydrates, as demonstrated by an MIT study involving brownies.
Sellers of bottled water capitalize on fears of tap water contamination to the point of charging more than 2,000 times as much for essentially the same product. In fact, tap water may even be safer than bottled in some cases. A report last year by the nonprofit Center for Environmental Health found that Whole Foods and Dr Pepper Snapple Group brands distributed in Walmarts and Targets contained enough arsenic to require a health warning under California law. Consumer Reports showed one brand had recalled thousands of cases for high levels of arsenic in 2016, but continued selling bottles just under the federal limit that could still pose health risks if consumed regularly.
Though it makes Silicon Valley seem like a parody of itself, there’s been a movement favoring “off-the-grid” water as an alternative to bottled or tap, in line with other raw-foods crazes such as the paleo diet. Despite the unverified claims of “probiotic” benefits from sellers such as Live Water, drinking untreated spring water poses many well-established health risks from pathogens including cholera, E. coli, and hepatitis.
Related: The Best Water Filters
One of the strangest smuggling stories in recent memory was a New York Times’ report of a service using secret tunnels to deliver KFC from Egypt to Gaza. At an inflated $27 per 12-piece bucket, this well-traveled fast food took more than four hours to arrive in the densely populated coastal strip, home to 2.1 million Palestinians with between 40% and 50% unemployment, where the entry and exit of many goods remain restricted. Since the 2013 report, Western fast food franchises have remained unwelcome in the embattled territory.
A common food myth is that the ground meat used by Taco Bell or other mass purveyors, including school cafeterias, is labeled as “Grade D but Edible,” if not just “Grade F.” But there is no letter grading system for meats in the U.S. — it operates on pass-fail guidelines, and optional USDA rankings range from “prime” to “canner.” As for Taco Bell meat, there’s no word on its ranking, just that it’s 88% beef, with the rest being standard additives and preservatives.
A related myth exists about whether Jack in the Box uses actual meat in its tacos — a menu item loved by some and loathed by others. A popular rumor suggests that instead of ground beef the fast-food chain uses a soy-based, textured vegetable protein — therefore making the tacos suitable for vegetarians. In true urban legend fashion, I personally knew someone who swore an employee told them it was soy. While an ingredient breakdown posted online by the company does indeed list textured vegetable protein as one of the “filling ingredients” in the tacos, it also list beef, and even chicken, first.
This old tale warns that if you swallow your gum, it’ll stay in your system for up to seven years, presumably wreaking untold damage. Fortunately, our digestive systems are too efficient to let that happen and easily dissolve gum’s flavorings, sweeteners, and softeners. All that remains is the chewy synthetic gum base, which passes the same as any other food waste.
Whether it’s “Family Guy,” “Zombieland,” “WALL-E,” or a Chevy Super Bowl ad, Twinkies are playfully renowned as not just imperishable, but downright invincible — up there with cockroaches on the list of apocalypse survivors. Alas, though packed with artificial ingredients, the cream-filled yellow snack cakes have only one preservative and a reputed shelf-life of 25 days, according to their manufacturer Hostess.
The world’s most popular soft drink is the subject of so many urban legends that it’s earned its own subcategory: Cokelore. One of the most obvious yet outlandish-sounding claims about Coca-Cola’s origins is based in truth: It was made with cocaine. Indeed, in 1885, the drink was named for its advertised medicinal ingredients of coca leaves and kola nuts. The recipe was superficially attached to the ingredients for the sake of branding for a while after. It was cut to a “mere trace” in 1891 and reported as six-100ths an ounce per 25 million gallons of Coca-Cola syrup, before finally being phased out completely in 1929.
Coca-Cola’s fizziness is pleasant for a moment, but what would it do to our mouth or innards over time? A common myth is that a tooth left in a glass of the soft drink would be significantly eaten away, if not outright dissolved overnight. It originated with the 1950 testimony of Cornell professor Clive M. McCay before Congress that Coke caused cavities and would soften and begin to dissolve a tooth in a glass in a matter of two days. The acids in Coke will eventually dissolve items, the same as orange juice, but not to the abnormal degree McCay claimed and others parroted.
After Pop Rocks candy was released in 1975, rumors grew that combining the “popping” candy with soda could be fatal — and killed “Little Mikey,” the kid in an enduring Life Cereal commercial. But John Gilchrist, who played Little Mikey, is alive and well. And even though it’s taken out full-page ads explaining Pop Rocks generate less gas than half a can of soda, candy manufacturer General Foods is still putting up with farfetched, explosive rumors.
Pop Rocks aren’t the only candy reputed to have a volatile relationship with Coke products. People love dumping hard-shelled, chewy Mentos into Diet Coke to shoot geysers of carbonation high into the air, so a 2006 story that claimed two Brazilian children died from ingesting the combination didn’t seem far-fetched. No deaths have been confirmed, though. Online videos of the “Mentos effect” suggest the stunt could be gastronomically distressing, but not life-threatening.
Kraft Jell-O, which makes up roughly 80% of the U.S. gelatin market, doesn’t come from hooves, but that doesn’t mean it’s vegetarian. Instead, the gelatin that gives Jell-O its jiggly texture is made from the hides and bones of animals such as pigs, cattle, and horses, which is processed into collagen powder — and therefore not classified as an animal product by the federal government.
Like many popular food brands, Dr Pepper takes care to protect its 134-year-old secret recipe, though it’s happy to advertise that it’s “a blend of many fruit and flavor extracts.” One long-standing rumor alleges one flavor is prune juice, which Dr Pepper denies in an online FAQ: “No one is quite sure when or how the story that Dr Pepper contained prune juice started, but it has never been true.”
Almost as long as Tootsie Pops have been in production, there’s been a rumor that any wrapper bearing a Native American chief and star could be redeemed for a free bag of candy. Alas, though the illustrations do exist and independent candy-sellers may have honored the exchange, the Tootsie Roll company has never offered any such program. It still averages more than 100 letters a week asking about it.
Presbyterian minister Sylvester Graham promoted a healthy lifestyle, with no alcohol use, a fiber-rich vegetarian diet, fresh air, exercise — and the suppression of sexual urges. Part of his prescribed diet was the use of unsifted wheat flour to make “Graham bread.” How this evolved into the graham crackers we know today is unclear, but they came to name-brand prominence under Nabisco in 1898. And now they include refined white flour, which Graham would hate.
Another 19th century crusader against sexuality who spawned a snack food empire unintentionally, John Harvey Kellogg was superintendent at a Michigan sanitarium when he invented a cereal of baked and shredded corn meal pieces, believing a healthier grain-based diet could counter the scourge of masturbation among his patients. Corn flakes never would succeed on that front, but Kellogg’s more business-savvy brother Will would eventually pervert the recipe by adding sugar and begin selling it to the public, leading to the breakfast cereal we still know today.
Large food corporations are often viewed with suspicion, a common fear being that they hide gross or inedible-sounding fillers in products to cut costs. McDonald’s has been the subject of countless such allegations, such as bird feathers in McFlurries, worm meat in burgers, or styrofoam balls and “eyeball fluid” in shakes. None of these are true, but such negative perceptions of the restaurants’ use of artificial ingredients has prompted them to start phasing out additives such as high fructose corn syrup and preservatives.
It’s true, a human finger was found in a bowl of Wendy’s chili — only Wendy’s wasn’t responsible. A Las Vegas resident in 2005 allegedly found the digit in her meal from a California Wendy’s, a hoax that inspired a media firestorm. While Wendy’s sales plummeted, the woman quickly retained a lawyer — then was found to have a history of litigious claims against other companies. Eventually, police determined the finger came from an associate of her husband’s. It had been severed by a truck tailgate in a work accident.
Another illustration of how little people trust processed meats, this urban legend revolves around someone — say, a friend of a friend’s sister — biting into a bucket of fried chicken only to find that it’s actually fried rat, or something equally bad. Most commonly attributed to KFC, there’s never been a confirmed case of someone biting into a fried rodent, though the next best thing was Katherine Ortega’s 2000 (unconfirmed) discovery of a fried chicken head in her McDonald’s meal.
A 2016 news story about a Florida Chinese restaurant shut down for serving dog meat was only the latest hoax in a century-long line relating to the xenophobic fear that Chinese restaurants secretly incorporate meats taboo to Westerners, such as that of man’s best friend. In this case, as in most, there was no reputable source for the claims, and the Coral Springs police department’s since-deleted Facebook post confirmed it was, in their words, “a fake news story.”
Though a minor presence in the U.S., Fanta ranks up there with Coke as one of the most popular soft drinks in Africa, Latin America, and Europe … for reasons dating back to Nazi Germany. The orange soda was invented by German Coca-Cola bigwig Max Keith after the attack on Pearl Harbor cut off shipments of Coke syrup to the Third Reich. His replacement, made with the dregs of cider apples and other available waste products, became especially popular as food became scarce and citizens started using it as a soup base. It was discontinued after the war until Coke decided it needed another beverage to compete with Pepsi abroad in 1955, though it wasn’t heavily marketed in America until 2001.
For years, Halloween has been plagued with stranger-danger fears that candy might conceal poisons, shards of glass, or razor blades — stories that in some cases may have been inspired by a 1964 New York homemaker who bristled against having to give older kids free candy and instead offered steel wool pads or dog biscuits, resulting in a charge of endangering children. Most reports since have been debunked as pranks or hoaxes; the only two confirmed deaths from tainted Halloween candy were caused by family members. Candy tampering hysteria soared in 1982 after Chicago-area deaths from cyanide-laced Tylenol capsules. The industry tried to address concerns by setting up a candy tampering hotline, which hasn’t received a single verified report since.
In the 17th and 18th century, lobsters were so plentiful along the Atlantic coastline that people considered them a low-class food source, using them instead as bait for other fish or feed for livestock and indentured servants. Public perception of the shellfish started to change in the later 1800s, when railway managers started billing it as a pricey delicacy, to the pleasure of clueless passengers. Despite a dip in popularity and esteem during the Great Depression, lobster continued its ascent to become the luxury we know it as today.
While health fads often advertise the benefits of hydration, there have been multiple documented cases of people drinking too much H2O and dying of “water intoxication.” In 2007, for example, a 28-year-old California woman died competing in a radio station’s on-air water-drinking contest, “Hold Your Wee for a Wii,” while other cases have occurred during fraternity hazing rituals or MDMA-fueled nightclub raves. When the kidneys can’t flush out water fast enough, excess water dilutes the blood and ultimately enters the cells, including neurons, leading to brain-swelling and death.
As many dentists will tell you as a kid, sugary candies can rot your teeth. The same applies to healthier foods such as fruit, bread, or oatmeal, though. All can cause plaque buildup and cavities if allowed to sit on the teeth for long without flossing, brushing, or rinsing. There’s also no significant link between sugar consumption and behavioral problems in children; parents’ reports of hyperactivity after kids drink soda is a matter of perception, studies show. And sugar is not especially responsible for weight gain and obesity epidemics around the world — no doubt eating a lot of sugary snacks and sodas will pile on the pounds, but because it’s indicative of too much calorie consumption, period, not specifically sugars. Our bodies also convert starches into sugar, yet the nations that eat the most rice and pasta (Japan and Italy, respectively) are among the world’s thinnest.
The public and medical professionals alike believed for decades that stomach ulcers could be caused by eating too much spicy or highly acidic foods, along with factors such as drinking and stress. In the early ’80s, researchers confirmed that none of these cause ulcers, though they can irritate them. Their true cause is an infection of the bacterium called H. pylori that is present in about 20% of Americans under age 40 and 50% over 60, though it’s still unknown why only some carriers develop health issues.
The insistence that you shouldn’t consume milk or cheese with a stuffy nose actually dates back to ancient Chinese texts blaming dairy for a “thickening of phlegm.” Just because a legend is old doesn’t make it right, however. A 2018 review of the scientific literature concluded there was no meaningful connection between milk and upper respiratory mucus, so at its extreme the myth could contribute to calcium and other nutrient deficiencies in children suffering from conditions such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, and the common cold.
“Pizza face” may be a common adolescent taunt for bad acne, but skin breakouts have little to do with what you eat. It’s caused instead by oil secretions and dead skin cells that block the openings of glands and create bacterial inflammation, and determined more by factors of hormonal change, skin friction, and genetic predisposition. While other non-Western nations’ low-glycemic diet may reduce acne problems, an American Academy of Dermatology study found no link between acne and junk foods such as soda, chocolate, and potato chips.