Sometimes you are, quite literally, what you eat. Human hair has been on our menus for quite sometime although few of us knew it and you certainly won't see it listed on ingredients labels. Religious groups urge caution. Intrigued? Michael Fitzpatrick reports.

In the quest by the food giants to find the perfect additives very little has been considered too outré in the past to be included in our daily dose of enhancers, flavourings and preservatives. In fact hair is probably one of the least noxious amongst many questionable food candidates - feathers, horn, hooves, animal hair - some strict vegetarians might agree. Besides, extracts of hair, indigestible as
they might seem, are perfectly natural and make a better type of additive, say some.

The Chinese government doesn't agree, however. In its attempt to crack down on unlicensed food suppliers, it recently busted some illegally set up factories that were processing human hair into chemicals bound ultimately for soy sauce makers. It's a phenomena brought on by raw material squeeze, say industry insiders. The explosive demand for commodities in China is causing prices to rocket on a global scale. Human hair can produce much of the basic material for soy sauce at half the price, and - besides the yuck factor - appears to have been passed off as regular soy-bean-based soy sauce quite successfully.

Good source of amino acid

Outside of China, hair-based ingredients are not black-market surrogates but a legitimate by-product of a food industry dependent on cheap and plentiful raw materials to create additives. Of course recently shorn hair may not be very palatable at the best of times but given to an chemist he can reduce it to one of the world's favourite food ingredients - L-Cysteine or E 920.

Commonly seen on packaged food ingredient lists as L-Cystine, the cysteine additive is sometimes produced from human hair, which is 8% Cysteine. As far as the food industry is concerned hair is a valuable source of this very useful amino acid.

It can also be produced using other raw materials, such as vegetable matter and the above mentioned animal extremities. But whether the Cysteine in your food was human hair-based or not was doubtful until now, theoretically at least for EU citizens. An EU law now bans this type of L-Cysteine from food (Brussels simply felt the use of hair was 'unethical') but it is still impossible to be sure where the L-Cysteine in your food was sourced, say food experts.

Don't expect to see hair in the ingredients list

You may not even find the ingredient listed on the labels of L-Cysteine-laced foods at all. If any flavouring constitutes less than 2% of the ingredients then the manufacturers need not declare it on labelling, says another UK directive. So this curious act of potential cannibalism may go unnoted even by the most scrupulous label hound.

Of course, by the time it reaches the world's pizzas, bagels and croissants, where it's used predominately as a dough conditioner (it reduces mixing time, prevents shrinkage of pizza crusts and helps in the machinability of dough) the hair has been thoroughly gone over and reduced to its chemical constitutes. Still, it's extraordinary to think that the body can be recycled like this and re-enter the food chain so abruptly. More extraordinary, perhaps, is the journey it makes from the ebony thatches of the Far East to edibles on shelves in the West.

Sourced straight from barbers

China's barber shops are about the last place you might expect to find a food ingredient. Nonetheless, this is where the food industry obtains much of the raw material for Cysteine. Why the food additives industry, and the cheap soy sauce makers, should favour hair from this particular region is clear: its homogenous abundance - a 1 billion head count in China alone - and, according to food ingredient expert Dr John Meyer, it's cleaner. 'Some of the principal producers of Cysteine are based in South East Asia because it's easier to collect nice, clean, tied up, bales of human hair there,' he says.

There is a whole industry devoted to the preparation of this yellowish liquid. The hair is collected, cleaned and processed and then chemically converted into Cysteine and Tyrocine in factories all over the Far East.

As the European representative of the Orthodox Union of America, Meyer's job is to visit all food plants in Europe which the union Kosher-certifies, and check that all ingredients remain, in fact, Kosher. Meyer's painstaking work demands he knows his E numbers from his lactic acids.

"It's still Kosher"

"There are very few renewable human resources," he says drolly. "But Cysteine is one of them. It may be a hair chemical, an amino acid to be precise, used as a flavouring, but it's still Kosher.

"Cysteine is also used in savoury flavours. You often find it in yeast flavours; you might find it in a sausage flavour. In fact, you might find it in a savoury flavour for almost anything.

"Dough makers, however," says Meyer, "use mainly vegetarian Cysteine which is, of course, pure chemical and not hair-based."

So with a new law in place forbidding the addition of hairy human chemicals into EU consumed food, surely the vegetarians and some religious groups will be happier. However many are yet to be convinced food ingredients can be so easily policed.

For Muslims, Cysteine has always been a headache. That derived from human hair is Haraam - forbidden - and has no place in a halal diet because Islam does not allow the use of human hair in food. But as Masood Khawaja, president of the Halal food authority, points out, we can't know the provenance of every ingredient.

Halal authorities urge caution

"The food authority has given us an understanding that all L-Cysteine used in the UK should be derived from non-animal and non-human sources but we can never be sure. Be cautious is my advice."

Caution is right. As it really is up to each manufacturer to be honest about its ingredients, there's no way the government could test every product's additives - we have to take them on trust. Just as the world's Muslims did when a once irreproachable Japanese MSG maker Ajinomoto assured consumers that its products were halal. It was wrong.

Factory bosses were nearly lynched by angry Muslims in Malaysia a few years ago when MSG being produced there was found to be pork-tainted. The arrested Japanese confessed they were in the dark as to how it happened - just as ignorant as many of us are of the Dark Arts of the global food processors.