Food Unwrapped is a new Channel 4 programme that explores how our food is really made and the industry secrets behind our favourite produce. Reporters Matt Tebbutt, James Watt, Martin Dickie and Kate Quilton will be travelling the world to discover exactly how our favourite produce in manufactured.

The series focuses around simple questions about the food we buy. Questions such as ‘what is the bacteria in my probiotics?’ and ‘what is formed ham?’ The reporters then contact the major supermarkets and producers and if they can’t explain it, the reporters travel to the producers who supply the supermarkets to investigate further. Taking their cameras behind the doors of factories, growers and producers, the team reveal some startling truths we never knew about our food.

The series opens with the question ‘what is the wax on the lemons we buy?’ The answer may have you re-thinking those waxed lemons next time you are in the supermarket.

After (unsuccessfully) contacting the consumer helplines in a bid to find out what the wax on the lemons we buy is actually made from, their question remained unanswered. So to find out more, it was off to Eastern Spain.

Spanish Lemons

Lemons love the sun, which is why Spain is such a good producer of these citrus fruits. On visiting a lemon grove in Valencia, it was revealed that when the lemons are picked they do not have the shiny, waxy layer we are used to seeing in our supermarkets. This is something that is added when they reach the warehouse. But what is this wax? The team moved their investigation to Murcia to find out more.

What’s In The Wax?

One of the main components of the wax is a substance called ‘Shellac’. Although it is a natural product, Shellac is a food additive. This means that it has been approved in the European Union and many other countries to be used in food, but the product is also used in confectionary and pharmaceuticals. Shellac also contains ammonia that makes the product water-soluble meaning it can be applied more easily to food. The next additive in wax used for citrus fruits is polyethylene. Polyethylene is synthetic wax, similar to plastic. It helps stop the wax from breaking. There are many other types of wax used and being developed but Shellac is the most popular. This is because not only is it edible, durable and exceptional at preventing water loss, but also makes the lemons incredibly shiny.

Raw Material Of Shellac

Shellac pickers harvest the raw material from trees in the jungles of Thailand. The raw material is found on the branches of trees in insect nests. The insects survive by sucking the moisture from the branches. These insects are known as lack beetles and the Shellac is made from the waste of these beetles. When on the trees the female lack beetles excrete their waste onto the branches to make a hard, protective nest. It is these nests that contain both living and dead beetles that pickers scrape off to make Shellac.

So next time you are buying lemons, check the label, you may be getting more than just lemons!

Food Unwrapped is on Channel 4 Mondays at 8pm