Thursday, August 16, 2012

Beetle Juice!

Beetle juice, anyone?  Watch out for bugs in many conventional foods and products such as yogurts, fruit drinks, ice cream and cosmetics.

Most folks would pass on them, but chances are that many people have unknowingly consumed bugs, even though they’re listed on the ingredients.  These bugs go by their more “scientific” names, of course, but they’re still bugs, including beetles.

It would help if the ingredients shouted out, “Beetle juice!” but they don’t. Instead, these buggy additions are found under names such as cochineal extract, carmine, color (E120), carminic acid and color index (CI 75470).

While the names may sound harmless, the results of ingesting these bugs are not so innocuous. For some, the consequences of eating these bug parts are downright devastating, resulting in allergic reactions ranging from asthma to anaphylactic shock.

Here’s a rundown on these critters and where you can find them:

Cochineal extract and carmine are used to dye food, drinks and cosmetics shades of red, orange, pink and purple and come from the dried bodies of the female cochineal bug—a parasitic insect that lives on cacti. They’re often found in conventional fruit drinks such as pink lemonade and ruby red grapefruit juice; yogurts, especially strawberry; ice creams, colorful candies and even sprinkles—as well many more beverages, foods and cosmetics.

To add to the buggy mix, confectioner’s glaze, food glaze, resinous glaze and pharmaceutical glaze are glamorized names for shellac, the excretion from a certain type of beetle that is used in foods. Some people argue that this excretion’s not too different from how we get honey, but shellac is harvested beetles and all—which is not too appetizing and doesn’t leave much to the imagination.

In all fairness, a corn protein called zein can also be labeled as confectioner’s glaze, but that’s not often the form found. Unfortunately, bugs have the market cornered on confectioner’s glaze used in conventional foods.

The FDA has finally required food companies to list cochineal extract and carmine on the label when they are used in food and cosmetics. However, in the recent past, the FDA didn’t require color additives to be specifically named on food labels and these buggy additions have hidden behind terms such as artificial colors or color added.

Unfortunately, the FDA ruling doesn’t require companies to tell you that the ingredients come from bugs. As you might guess, many people want to avoid these bug-based ingredients for dietary, health or other reasons, including the “ick” factor. The problem is that people are often being bugged without their knowledge.

Additional “official” descriptors of products with cochineal extract include the following addendum, which is seemingly meant to downplay the bug content: “Commercial products may also contain proteinaceous material derived from the source insect.”

Proteinaceous material from the source insect??? Give me a break. That’s still disgusting.

Here’s North Carolina Museum of Natural Science educator Bob Alderink’s discussion of cochineal extract:  

While Alderink says the science of cochineal extract may be “cool,” who really wants bugs in their food?

Not me.