Posted by Linda Bonvie
September 12, 2013
If beetle juice isn’t your cup of tea – or cup of yogurt to be more exact – then here is yet another reason to become a more conscientious food-label reader.
You know that pretty red hue swirling in your cup of Dannon “Fruit on the Bottom” strawberry, raspberry, cherry and boysenberry yogurt, or in some flavors of its Greek and Activia brand? Well, that doesn’t come from fruit, but rather from a coloring additive called carmine, which is derived from the dried and crushed bodies of cochineal insects – small, scaly bugs harvested off of cactus plants.
If you’re finished saying “eeww,” then read on, because there is more than the ick factor involved here.
While some folks just don’t like the idea of bugs in their food, a small number of consumers have actually experienced allergic reactions that range from swelling, hives and itchiness to full-blown anaphylactic shock. And that’s not to mention some of the other reasons consumers might not want to unknowingly ingest insects, such as being a vegetarian or keeping a Kosher diet.
Having previously taken aim at the unlabeled use of carmine in food products, the consumer group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is now going a step further by sponsoring an online petition at
TakePart.com asking Dannon “to get insect-extract out of yogurt.” CSPI calls the practice “deceptive and gross,” and requests that Dannon use “more fruit” to color its product.
Although calls and an email to Dannon had not been answered at the time this blog was posted, the company told the online trade publication foodnavigator-usa.com that “carmine is safe, we label it clearly, and people that want to avoid it can…” But that response takes an awful lot for granted, considering that most folks don’t even have a clue what carmine is, let alone if they may be allergic to it.
Dannon says it has “no plans” to change its labeling and is holding fast to the idea that listing “carmine” on the packaging is good enough. However, had it not been for CSPI’s previous efforts, this bug-derived coloring would likely have remained listed on ingredient labels merely as “color added.”
In 1998 CSPI petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to, at the very least, require labeling of cochineal extracts. In 2006, with its petition still pending, the consumer group asked the FDA to reconsider its
refusal to ban the additive outright in order to protect consumers with unknown allergies to the bug juice coloring, asking “why tolerate a food coloring that sends a couple hundred people to emergency rooms each year, yet its only purpose is cosmetic.”
Even though the FDA turned down the request to remove carmine from the food supply, in 2009, it ordered that the additive be named on a product’s ingredient label, a ruling that no longer permits this buggy ingredient to simply be hidden in foods. CSPI called the rule “useful progress” at the time, still maintaining that the FDA should “have exterminated these critter-based colorings altogether.”
Where protests precipitated change
While Dannon continues to state that they will not give up carmine colorings, another well-known company, Starbucks, made similar statements last year when a vegetarian barista learned what was coloring several of the cafe chain’s pink-hued items. Starbucks cleared its menu of bugs in short order after customers began protesting and an online petition was started.
So what does Starbucks use now? It seems that similar red colorings can be obtained via a natural tomato-based lycopene extract, a transition it completed last summer. Other natural and plant-based alternatives are available to food companies, and in the European Union – which does require more stringent labeling – food companies are using those options.
Other food products that may contain cochineal extracts include drinks, candy, ice cream, cakes, pies – basically any food item with a reddish or pink hue to it. So if you’d prefer to keep cochineal insects out of your diet — for whatever reason — better give the ingredient panel a careful scrutiny before you purchase that red-hued food. You won’t find any notices prominently displayed on product labels that there are pulverized insects inside.
Not yet, anyway.