Color This Creepy: Bugs in Food

Dear Brand Doctor,

A friend of mine told me that a popular food coloring – I think it’s called cochineal extract – is made from CRUSHED-UP BUGS! Is there any truth to this nonsense? If so, I think I’m gonna hurl!

By the way, I love your newsletters. Thanks for doing all the legwork for shoppers like me who just want the truth about what’s really in the foods we’re buying. Keep up the good work!
Signed, Truth Seeker

Dear Truth Seeker –

The truth… you can’t handle the truth! Sorry for that homage to Hollywood, but it’ll take more than a few good men to sugarcoat the fact that dried, crushed-up insects are indeed used to give a variety of food products a reddish color. The really weird part: food manufacturers use this dead-bug dye process with the blessing of the government!

According to the FDA:

“Cochineal is a dye made from dried and ground female bodies of the scale insect Dactylopius coccus costa (Coccus cacti L.). Powdered cochineal is dark purplish red. The chief coloring principle in cochineal is carminic acid, a hydroxyanthraquinone linked to a glucose unit. Cochineal contains approximately 10 percent carminic acid; the remainder consists of insect body fragments.”

Pretty gross, huh? Don’t you feel more than a little… um, violated?

Reality Check

Since you’ve probably unknowingly been ingesting this stuff for years (remember that red-tinted port wine cheese you gobbled up with Ritz crackers at your last party?), you might as well snack on these “fun facts” about cochineal extract:

  1. As if the gross-out factor isn’t enough, some of us are actually allergic to this bug extract! Who knew? It’s been reported to cause severe allergic reactions, such as sneezing, asthma, hives and anaphylactic shock. Lovely.
  2. Another code word for ground up red beetles is carmine. Both carmine and cochineal extract can be found on ingredients lists as a food coloring in foods like yogurt, ice cream, strawberry milk, fake crab and lobster meat, maraschino cherries, port wine cheese, lumpfish eggs, and many more. It can also be found in cosmetics, shampoo and pharmaceuticals. Very nice.
  3. And, the most surprising fun fact of all is this food coloring is considered to be a natural, non-toxic alternative to potentially harmful artificial red dyes. That’s right … manufacturers are using this instead of artificial dyes – because it’s healthier!

Oddly, that last fact didn’t make us feel any better. How about you?

Let’s Review

We don’t mean to be a pest, but let’s review.

Usually we are reporting on junk ingredients that are harmful to your health. In this instance, carmine and cochineal extract are more offensive than unhealthy.

However, this example still drives home the point that it pays to have a little eBrandAid know-how under your belt when deciphering the ingredients label on all the foods you’re buying.

We’ll leave you with this Food for Thought: Stamp out crushed beetle bugs and any other mysterious food colorings! Stick to food brands that rely on real, whole food ingredients that come packaged with their own natural colors and don’t require additional food colorings. And, feel free to tell those manufacturers who use mysterious, unappetizing ingredients to, well, BUG OFF!

Remember, when you’re armed with a little eBrandAid know-how, you’re in control at the grocery store.

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In Our Opinion: The information contained in the eBrandAid e-newsletters is strictly based on the opinions of the eBrand Doctors. We have created a set of guidelines that we believe will help shoppers to better understand and decode food labels on products found in most grocery stores. Our mission is to help shoppers find the healthier brands that have the least amount of chemicals and other junk ingredients.

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