As kids, we all heard stories about how Coca-Cola can dissolve a nail overnight and how chewing gum stays in the stomach for seven years. These urban legends were passed around by word of mouth, from mother to child, from peer to peer. Today, while you may still be hearing cautionary tales from your mom, urban legends also live in Facebook feeds, tweets and those ridiculous chain emails your uncle insists on sending to everyone he knows.
Thankfully, just as today’s technology enables these tales (some tall, some not) to be easily shared, it also makes them easy to debunk — or prove — with a little online research. We rounded up many of the classic food-and-drink-related urban legends, as well as some of the newer ones you may have noticed in friends’ social-media posts. You might be surprised to learn that several of them are more fact than fiction after all.
Claim: KFC is no longer called Kentucky Fried Chicken because it uses “genetically manipulated organisms,” rather than real chickens, and thus cannot use the word “chicken” in its name.
This one started back in 1999 but resurfaced online last year. Emails, Facebook posts and irresponsibly reported stories stated that “genetically manipulated organisms” were “kept alive by tubes inserted into their bodies to pump blood and nutrients throughout their structure. They have no beaks, no feathers and no feet. Their bone structure is dramatically shrunk to get more meat out of them. This is great for KFC.” The story typically cites a “University of New Hampshire study” and is sometimes accompanied with a photo of mutated chickens.
First off, there was no such study — and the Frankensteinian chickens do not exist. As Snopes explains, “Raising chickens that have been genetically modified so that they are born without beaks, feathers or feet, or with additional legs, is still beyond the reach of modern science for the time being (although selective breeding has been used to enhance some features, such as breast size).”
Additionally, the rest of KFC’s website mentions “chicken” plenty, and the fast-food company doesn’t raise all of its own chickens. The name change came about in 1991 because KFC was planning to offer other types of food and thus wanted to de-emphasize “chicken” in its name. Plus, “fried” had earned a negative connotation, and other companies, like IHOP, were shortening their names.
Claim: Castoreum, a yellowish secretion from the castor sacs of beavers, is used as a food additive that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considers to be generally recognized as safe.
Gross but true. And it gets worse: Snopes says, “The location of the beaver’s castor sacs means that castoreum also often includes a mixture of anal gland secretions and urine as well.” Yum!
The secretion has been used to enhance strawberry and raspberry flavorings in products like iced tea, ice cream, gelatin, candy, fruit-flavored drinks and yogurt.
The “good” news: It’s used so sparingly in foods that the average consumer consumes only 0.000129 mg/kg/day, and research has found that it poses no health risk to people.
Claim: You shouldn’t swallow your chewing gum because it takes seven years for the body to digest.
We’ve all heard this one, or some version of it — that God forbid, if you accidentally swallow your gum, it’s going to be stuck in your stomach for nearly a decade.
This myth may have partly evolved from the fact that chewing gum is indigestible by the human body. But that just means the body can’t break it down; the body will still move it through the digestive system just as efficiently as anything else you consume.
“Most people empty their stomachs 30 to 120 minutes after eating, and that includes gum,” explains Dr. Nancy McGreal on DukeHealth.org.
Claim: Chinese restaurants in the United States use cat and dog meat in their dishes.
Your order of General Tso’s chicken might not be a healthy contribution to your diet, but you can at least rest assured it’s what you ordered: chicken.
This urban legend can be traced all the way back to the earliest years of the British Empire in England and the 1850s in the United States. You’d think that would be long enough to put the rumor to rest, right? Wrong. Only three years ago, a Chinese restaurant in Yorkshire, England, lost business after a story circulated online that a woman choked on a dog’s microchip at the establishment.
These misguided concerns can be chalked up to xenophobia, the unreasonable fear and dislike of foreigners. Guardian writer Lijia Zhang went so far as to call the Yorkshire incident a case of “racism,” and says in the case of the Chinese, racism often rears its ugly head in the form of disgust with the country’s food.
“China has a fabulous and sophisticated cuisine, but westerners always focus on the tiny percentage of what we eat that is weird,” Zhang says. “And the very good reasons that the weird stuff made it into Chinese kitchens is never mentioned: Chinese cuisine is very much a famine cuisine; historically, Chinese people have had to make use of every bit of available resources.”
It’s true that the Chinese don’t keep dogs and cats as pets, and the practice of eating them isn’t unheard of, but it predominantly exists in distant regions. Even if it were common throughout all of China, it would be absurd to suggest that Chinese restaurant owners in the United States would serve Fluffy and Fido to unsuspecting customers.
Claim: If you leave a tooth, nail, penny, piece of meat, etc., in a glass of Coke overnight, it will have completely dissolved the next morning.
There are plenty of reasons to cut back on your soda intake (or eliminate it entirely), but this is not one of them. This widespread myth was often used as a warning to soda drinkers: “Imagine what it could do to your insides!”
According to Snopes, it can be traced back to 1950 when a Cornell University professor argued that the phosphoric acid in Coke was dangerous, providing the example of how a tooth left in a glass of Coke would soften and begin to dissolve after two days.
But here’s the thing: While Coca-Cola can eventually dissolve such items as teeth over time (not overnight) due to its citric acid and phosphoric acid content, so can plenty of other things we eat and drink. The pH level of Coca-Cola is even less than that of an orange, so if you’re worried about soda’s corrosive abilities, you should probably quit the OJ too.
Claim: Soaking okra in water and drinking the water the next day normalizes blood-sugar levels, effectively “curing” diabetes.
If diabetes could be 100% cured with okra-water, the beverage industry would have jumped on that opportunity ages ago. (The pharmaceutical industry probably would have found a way to sell it in pill form, too.)
This myth made its way around the Web in January 2014, instructing people to cut the ends off a few okra slices, soak them in water overnight and drink the water the next morning. And it’s not completely false. As Snopes explains, “The viscosity of okra’s carbohydrates helps to slow the uptake of sugar into the blood by reducing the rate at which sugar is absorbed from the gastrointestinal tract, thereby reducing the glycemic load of glucose in the blood that can disrupt the body’s ability to properly process the sugars (and that in some cases can lead to the onset of diabetes).”
In other words, eating okra on a frequent basis can “help even out rollercoaster blood-sugar levels,” according to Livestrong, and may even have some preventive power, but this is a far cry from claiming it’s a cure for diabetes or an effective substitute for insulin shots.
Claim: You can cook an egg or popcorn kernels by placing them in between two cell phones.
You may have seen the video on YouTube back in 2008: A bunch of kids put four cell phones in a ring around a few kernels. When the phones ring simultaneously, the kernels pop into popcorn.
Turns out this was a hoax designed as a marketing scheme. Cardo Systems, a vendor of Bluetooth communication devices, created the video with digital editing in the hopes it would go viral and help sell their products. Though the CEO claimed the company had no intention of scaring people, it contributed to consumer fears about potential health effects of new technologies, like cell phones, that could send and receive data without the use of wires.
The egg? Also a hoax — this one via spoof article published by the Wymsey Village Web website.
Claim: Green potatoes are toxic.
Everyone’s favorite tuber really does have a dangerous side. Green potatoes contain solanine, a glycoalkaloid poison found in species of the nightshade. It’s produced in the green parts of the potato (i.e., leaves, stem and any green spots on the skin) as a way to protect itself from insects, disease and predators.
In large doses, solanine can cause symptoms ranging from gastrointestinal problems like diarrhea and vomiting to hallucinations, paralysis and death. But don’t throw out your spuds yet! The amounts found in potatoes are so small that ScienceBasedMedicine.org estimates that you’d have to eat around 67 large potatoes to be poisoned.
Claim: Jell-O is made from animal bones, skin and hides.
You won’t find any vegans eating Jell-O. Its main ingredient: gelatin, which “consists of the collagen extracted from an animal’s skin and (mostly) bones,” according to the Science Channel. It doesn’t contain horses’ hooves, like many mistakenly believe, but the bones, skins and hides of cows and pigs.
And Jell-O isn’t the only product with gelatin. FitSugar says it’s also used in some vitamins and medications, marshmallows and Peeps, cheeses, soups, salad dressings, jams, fruit snacks and canned hams.
Claim: An image shows a package of Kraft macaroni and cheese with a warning on its ingredient label: “This product may have adverse effect on activity and attention in children.” Then below it: “GMO declaration: Made from genetically modified wheat (may contains GMO).”
This image spread through social media in May 2013 with added text explaining that the product was imported to the UK from the United States and thus required such warnings. Though not on the same line in the label, the GMO warning and the adverse effect warning were assumed to be related, meaning that GMO wheat posed enough of a risk to children that a warning label was deemed necessary.
Here’s why this doesn’t make sense: It’s currently illegal to grow or commercially sell GMO wheat in any country, so how would Kraft have acquired it, and why would they want to advertise that their product was illegally produced?
Plus, the warning label doesn’t coincide with European Union regulations and the required use of such labels. Food products containing GMOs are required to be labeled as “genetically modified” or “produced from genetically modified [ingredients],” but the wording “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children” is specific to a completely different regulation concerning artificial colorings. Thus, the mention of adverse effects would refer to the presence of synthetic food dyes, not GMO substances, in the product.
Kraft reached out to Snopes, confirming that the label was inaccurate and did not come from them. None of their products contain GMO wheat. “The company that has applied this sticker is not authorized by Kraft to sell our products,” Kraft states.
Claim: Mixing Pop Rocks with carbonated drinks can make your stomach explode, which is how Little Mikey from the LIFE cereal commercials died.
Legend has it that Little Mikey, the kid from the LIFE cereal commercials, made the fatal mistake of drinking six sodas (some say Pepsi, some say Coke) and six bags of Pop Rocks. When the two substances combined in his stomach, the pressure from the carbon dioxide was so intense that his stomach exploded.
This one’s easy to debunk considering that John Gilchrist, the former child actor who played Mikey, is still alive and well today, working as the director of media sales at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The rumors were so bad in the late 1970s, though, that the FDA actually had to set up a telephone hotline in Seattle to reassure parents that the fizzy candy was safe.
"Mythbusters" even did an episode on this urban legend, using a pig’s stomach to replicate the story. Six sodas and six bags of Pop Rocks later, the stomach was still intact, albeit a little gassy.
Claim: The Yellow No. 5 dye in Mountain Dew shrinks testicles, causes one’s penis to grow smaller and lowers sperm count.
Yellow No.5 dye, also known as tartrazine, has been in use since 1916 and is used in everything from ice cream and potato chips to soft drinks, cereal and various condiments. While this additive’s safety is still debatable, there has been no evidence to suggest it affects male reproductive organs or sperm count.
In the European Union, warning labels are required for packaged foods containing tartrazine and other synthetic food dyes, and the FDA requires the additive to be included in ingredient labels when present in food products. These regulations are in place because of its potential effects on hyperactivity in children, as well as allergic reactions among certain people with sensitivities.