21 Controversial Foods People Love To Hate

A Hispanic couple in their 20s shops for honey at a farmer’s market in upstate New York.

Food, like politics, celebrities, and bizarre fashion choices, can make headlines for being controversial. Thanks to the rise of social media, we’re actually seeing more food controversies than ever before. Remember when a KFC customer took to Facebook in 2015 after being served a fried rat (or so they thought)? Yeah, that was a problem. As was this recent viral photo of peeled chicken nuggets. But those issues are just in the fast food industry.

Here’s a compiled a list of the most problematic food items that are still being sold around the world despite the controversy and negativity that constantly surrounds them.

From highly-detested mayonnaise to the barely-legal shark fin industry, these foods are causing upset left, right, and center. Some foods are worse than others from an ethical standpoint. However, there is persistent debate over whether all of these foods should be outlawed, regulated, banned or completely left alone.

Wouldn’t it just be easier to stop producing this stuff rather than deal with the constant backlash?

Maybe so, maybe no. It’s up to you, and the rest of society, to decide. Where do you stand on the issues of the below controversial foods? Should consumers continue to have a choice in buying these products or not?

1. Mayonnaise

Hear us out. Mayonnaise has many enemies. The mere thought of putting that eggy, oily substance on a sandwich sends shivers down many peoples’ spines, and, honestly, they have good reason to be turned off by it.

Firstly, mayonnaise is high in fat and contains about 100 calories per tablespoon, which isn’t exactly healthy.

However, because mayo doesn’t contain much unsaturated fat, the product isn’t exactly “unhealthy,” either. But because commercially-made mayonnaise is packed with preservatives that ward off bacteria, you’re not doing yourself any favors by loading up your sandwich with a thick layer of mayo. Plus, the process of making mayo (which includes killing off male chicks and trimming the beaks of female chicks before maturation) is highly criticized by animal rights groups.

2. Commercial Honey

Vegans who have done their homework will tell you that commercially-sold honey is far from being cruelty free. According to PlantBasedNews.org, bee farmers sometimes replace the honey in hives with a sugar substitute, which is less healthy for the bees to consume.

Because it lacks the nutrients bees need to survive, they work overtime trying to make up for the missing nutrients.

Bee keepers may also clip the wings of the queen bee in order to keep her in the hive, as well as artificially inseminate her to continue the colony. Furthermore, dangerous pesticides are often used which often kill the bees. Buying local, ethically-sourced honey is a much better alternative to purchasing commercially-harvested honey.

Plus: The honey you’re buying might not even be really honey.

According to Food Safety News, cheap honey is mostly made of corn syrup, so really *really* take a look at the label on your jar of honey before purchasing.

3. Durian

There’s really nothing “normal” about the durian fruit. It looks like a medieval weapon, smells like death, yet tastes like heaven.

The durian fruit is possibly the most-debated about tropical fruit known to man because of how conflicting the fruit really is.

In fact, it’s smell of the durian — once described by food writer Richard Sterling as “turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock” — is so bad, it has kept planes grounded and has been banned from several Southeast Asian hotels and bus stations. If the stink is that offensive, one has to wonder why the durian is still available for purchase.

4. Kellogg’s Special K

Denmark reportedly banned Kellogg’s Special K from shelves in 2004, claiming that the additional vitamin B, calcium, folic acid, and iron added to the cereal could be toxic to young children if consumed every day. However, Chris Wermann, former director of Kellogg’s corporate affairs in Europe, told The Guardian that the extra B6 and folic acid added to the cereal only accounted for a quarter of a person’s daily allowance, and the added calcium and iron accounted for just 17%.

“We are quite worried about the Danish authorities challenging this,” Wermann said in 2004. “We don’t believe there is any danger at all. There is every reason for people to have these.”

Mental Floss reports that Dutch food authorities eventually lifted the ban on Kellogg’s and their Special K cereal as long as Kellogg’s stays within their legal limits when adding vitamins and minerals to their products.

5. Black Licorice

Despite the fact that some people would rather eat their own hand than munch on a piece of black licorice, the stuff has actually been proven to be dangerous to eat in excess. In 2017, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that overdosing on black licorice is a real thing that can cause pretty serious heart issues.

Consuming too much of a compound found in black licorice, called glycyrrhizin, can lead to abnormal heart rhythms, high blood pressure, lethargy, swelling, and congestive heart failure.

How much is too much? The FDA recommends that people over the age of 40 should limit their black licorice intake to less than two ounces per day.

6. Palm Oil

So many of our favorite treats, including Oreos and Nutella, contain palm oil, which has become one of the most controversial ingredients in the food industry. Palm oil comes from the African oil palm tree, which grows in the rainforests of Africa.

The demand for palm oil, which makes creamy things creamy, has caused:

Massive deforestation (about 300 football fields worth, as of November 2018), loss of biodiversity within rainforests, threat of endangerment of wild orangutans and other species, and is linked to the progression of climate change.

Yeah, it’s depressing, but why is palm oil still being used when its production is linked to so much destruction? Boycott, anyone?

7. Charcoal Ice Cream

Pitch-black ice cream has become a major fad and has taken over our Instagram feeds. To make black ice cream, activated charcoal is added to the dairy mixture. Obviously, the ingredient must be harmless if its being added to innocent foods like ice cream, right? Kind of.

Activated charcoal is used in hospital emergency rooms to treat victims of poisoning via oral consumption.

When consumed, the charcoal absorbs the poison before it has a chance to enter the bloodstream. Sometimes, laxatives are added to activated charcoal capsules to induce diarrhea for detoxification.

The fear is that activated charcoal in foods may interfere with medications a person is taking due to its absorptive properties.

This includes people who are taking oral hormonal contraceptives like birth control.

Because activated charcoal in foods really serves no other purpose than making things black, it’s odd that people are still on board with the trend despite medical concerns.

8. Kashi

In 2011, Kashi (owned by Kellogg’s) came under fire when the Cornucopia Institute exposed the brand’s “natural” cereals as not-so natural. In fact, some Kashi cereals even contained genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

When the New York Times reported on the evidence, Kashi had no choice but to own up to the facts.

A representative for the company stated, per Mental Floss, “While it’s likely that some of our foods contain GMOs, the main reason for that is because in North America, well over 80 percent of many crops, including soybeans, are grown using GMOs.”

“Factors outside our control … have led to an environment where GMOs are not sufficiently controlled.”

Kashi ultimately had to agree to produce new cereals that are officially Non-GMO Project certified.

9. Single-Use Coffee Pods

When the Keurig coffee maker came onto the market, people went gaga for K-cups and other branded coffee pods. They’re super convenient and offer a variety of different flavors so you can pick and choose from day to day.

However, coffee pods have become a problem for the environment.

“Coffee pods are one of the best examples of unnecessary single-use plastics that are polluting our planet,” John Hocevar, campaign director of Greenpeace USA, an environmental nonprofit organization, told USA Today. “Many end up getting incinerated, dumping poison into our air, water and our soil.”

USA Today reports that the creator of the K-cup has even stopped using the pods because of the guilt he feels about the negative environmental impact they’re causing.

Plus, K-cups and coffee pods that are labelled as “recyclable,” usually aren’t recycled at recycling facilities because of their size. Reusable, compostable, and biodegradable pods are the way to go if you can’t ditch the pod lifestyle. It’s time to do away with single-use K-cups and coffee pods altogether.

10. Red Meat

It’s true — steak is delicious. But it’s *seriously* not good for us. According to the World Cancer Research Fund, the consumption of red meat increases one’s chance of developing colorectal cancer:

That being cancer of the colon or rectum.

Specifically, cooking red meat at high temperatures, exposing red meat to heat for prolonged periods of time, and cooking red meat via grilling techniques all result in the formation of heterocyclic amines and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons — both of which are linked to colorectal cancer.

11. Diet Soda

When diet sodas first came out on the market, they were advertised as a “healthier” alternative to regular sodas because they were artificially sweetened with a substance called aspartame and didn’t contain as many calories as its predecessor.

However, a recent study from the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association have shown that diet soda may cause more harm than good.

Women over the age of 50 who drink two more more artificially-sweetened drinks per day are at a higher risk for clot-related stroke, heart attacks, and early death. As CNN notes, prior research has linked diet soda to stroke, dementia, Type 2 diabetes, obesity and metabolic syndrome, which can cause heart disease and diabetes.

12. Bushmeat

Although illegal in the United States, the preparation, consumption, and trade of endangered wildlife is legal in several countries in Africa and other regions throughout the world.

In Africa, bushmeat — that being meat from animals who reside in the forests and savannas known as “the bush” — can vary from:

Gorillas, chimpanzees and other primates, elephants, antelopes, crocodiles, fruit bats, and porcupines, to name just a few affected species.

Those who can afford to buy bushmeat do so as a status symbol, and though it’s technically illegal to sell bushmeat, the bushmeat trade is barely kept a secret.

13. Artificial Sweeteners

As noted in the diet soda paragraph, artificial sweeteners aren’t much better than regular old sugar. Though they can help adults lose weight and reduce sugar intake, they should really only be used as a transitional ingredient while weaning oneself off of sugar/sugar alternatives completely.

If one begins to rely on artificial sweeteners, these sweeteners can actually alter the way one tastes sugar.

This can make actual sugar and natural sugars taste off, which could turn us away from eating healthy sugars from fruits and vegetables.

Furthermore, because artificial sweeteners are fairly new to the food scene, it’s unclear how exactly the chemicals in these sweeteners will affect a body over the course of many years.

And as previously mentioned, artificial sweeteners have been linked to increasing one’s risk for diseases like diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

14. Cadbury Dairy Milk

In 2003, fans of Cadbury Dairy Milk chocolate bars were finding worms lodged in their candy. Many of the worms found were still alive, surviving off of the milk chocolate and cream filling. Cadbury reported that the worms were not the result of poor manufacturing, but rather poor storage and handling on the retailer’s part.

But the Indian FDA questioned how the worms could have got into the packaging if it was supposedly air tight.

Although Cadbury never officially took the blame for the worm incident, the brand ended up changing its packaging — something that experts say should have been done years prior to 2003.

15. Foie Gras

Foie gras, French for “fatty liver,” is a dish prepared with male duck or goose liver (like within the egg industry, female chicks in the foie gras industry are killed). Poultry commercially bred for foie gras purposes are force-fed grain and fats in an inhumane manner known as “gavage.”

In doing so, the ducks’ livers swell up to 10 times their normal size, according to PETA, and the birds, kept in horribly confined spaces, may not even be able to move because their livers are so oversized.

At Hudson Valley Foie Gras in New York, PETA found that over 15,000 ducks die each year before being slaughtered due to the inhumane conditions. Despite the tragic and cruel environment the animals live in, foie gras is still legal to produce and buy.

16. MSG

MSG, or monosodium glutamate, has been shunned from the food world for decades after being declared an unhealthy additive that can cause headaches and numbness. The ingredient is often found in Asian cuisine, specifically in sauces, and, although it’s been snubbed in the U.S., MSG is still used in many Asian countries today.

Since the 1960s, the FDA has received multiple reports of health issues linked to MSG, however there has never been any scientific link between MSG and the reported symptoms.

Our American distaste for MSG is most likely based in racism, as celebrity chef Andrew Zimmern has stated. The mid-century fear of the “other” has led us to dislike MSG, and the bias still stands today. Love it or hate it, the MSG debate will seemingly stay controversial for years to come.

17. Shark Fin

The only thing more dangerous in the ocean than a shark is a shark fin hunter. Shark fin soup is a huge ticket item in China, which means shark finning is a booming industry overseas. Fishermen who specialize in finning usually catch a shark, cut off its dorsal fin, and throw the still-alive shark back into the ocean.

Being unable to swim properly, the shark dies a horrible death, either by bleeding out or suffocating.

With sharks in massive danger of extinction due to the shark fin trade, countries around the world are finally working toward ending the shark finning industry — China included, slowly but surely.

18. Veal

The veal industry used to be a lot worse than it is today. By 2017, all tethered pens, in which calves were kept in while being fattened for slaughter, were banned. Now, veal calves are raised in larger pens or pastures and fed milk and whey. And veal is supposedly better for the environment in comparison to beef because calves are younger, and therefore require less food and produce less methane through manure.

However, despite the improvements, it’s hard to defend the veal industry knowing that young calves are the victims for humans’ benefit.

Ordering veal is an ethical dilemma than many find hard to grapple with.

19. Energy Drinks

If your morning cup of joe didn’t do its job, you may be tempted to grab an energy drink from the convenience store. Although these drinks will certainly give you the extra boost you need, they can also be deadly — especially for children. A 2014 study from the American Heart Association found that more than 5,000 cases of people sick getting sick after drinking energy drinks were reported to U.S. poison control centers between 2010 and 2013.

Almost half of those cases were kids.

Energy drinks caused some children to have seizures, irregular heart rhythms, and incredibly high blood pressure. In some cases, energy drink consumption even resulted in death.

20. Lamb

Like veal, lamb is produced by slaughtering young sheep (about six to eight months old). And unfortunately, we’re once again dealing with the issue of animal cruelty. Ethically, many people find it difficult to eat lamb for the sole fact that it’s a baby animal.

However, on a health level, lamb is just as bad as eating steak.

It’s a fatty red meat: Eating a lot of lamb can increase your risk for colorectal cancer, as mentioned earlier.

21. Margarine

Margarine is not the same as butter in any way, shape, or form. There may or may not be any dairy in it at all, actually. Most margarines are actually just a combination of vegetable oils, like soybean, palm, palm kernel (remember palm oil, people?), and preservatives, which vary from brand to brand.

Margarine can contain high levels of saturated fat, although not as much saturated and trans fats from the margarine of yesteryear thanks to new FDA regulations.

But those old margarine recipes have left a bad taste in many mouths, making it a controversial item lurking in the dairy aisle.