Did you know
Human hair - L-Cysteine is an amino acid used to prolong shelf-life in products such as commercial bread. It can be found in duck and chicken feathers and cow horns but the one used in food comes mostly from human hair. Most of the hair used for L-Cysteine production comes from China where it’s gathered from barbershops and hair salons. L-Cysteine is not an additive in flour so you can avoid its consumption by buying fresh bread from a local baker. Fast food places such as McDonald’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Burger King also use L-Cysteine as an additive.
Hoax or Fact:
Fact with some missing information.
The message shared online comes as a disturbing disclosure saying L-Cysteine, an amino acid used as a food additive in some products like bread comes from Human Hair, mostly from China. It is unfortunate; the claim is a fact, the complete details of which are discussed below.
The message circulating online appears to be derived from a May 2013 article published in 'Word of Mouth blog' in Life & Style section of TheGuardian.com.
Cysteine is a semi-essential amino acid, when used as a food additive, has the E number E920. It is found in most high-protein foods and comes from Animal and Plant sources. It is used in many food and bakery products like bread and cookie dough, as a softening agent and processing aid for baking. It is also used as a flavor enhancer in some human and pet foods.
As mentioned in the story, L-Cysteine is usually extracted from poultry feathers of duck or chicken, cow horns or even hogs hair; and the icky factor - yes, sometimes from human hair as well. There are reports that most of this type of L-Cysteine comes from China where there’s a history of poor regulation. In fact, as reported by DutchNews.nl in February 2014, researchers visited two factories in China where human hair is turned into L-Cysteine.
As mentioned in a related article published in MotherJones.com, L-Cysteine is sometimes extracted from the chemical stew that results from dumping tons of barbershop waste hair into vats of hydrochloric acid. Apart from poultry feathers, L-Cysteine can be synthesized in a lab, but the human hair is the cheapest source. Reportedly, human hair contains up to 20 percent Cysteine by weight, while duck feathers may yield only about half as much. On the contrary, for the sake of Vegans and Muslims, who do not take this easily, synthetically produced L-Cysteine is also available, albeit at a higher price.
Fast Food Chains
The Vegetarian Resource Group (vrg.org) inquired some of the major fast food chains about concerns on this food additive L-Cysteine. According to it, McDonald's L-Cysteine is derived from duck feathers and is present in their Honey Wheat Roll, the Deluxe Warm Cinnamon Roll, and the Baked Apple Pie. The L-Cysteine in many products at Dunkin' Donuts is also derived from duck feathers. In June 2007, Burger King said they "could not guarantee" the source of L-Cysteine in its products.
To conclude, the food additive L-Cysteine which is sometimes produced from human hair can be used as an additive in some foods, especially the baked ones like commercial bread. So read the labels of your products and check for E920, and in case of doubt, you can approach the manufacturer for clarification.