Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Say No to Foods Laced with Cochineal, Carmine (Beetle Juice)!


Media frenzy has broken since Starbucks confirmed on March 26 what many suspected about its Strawberry Frappuccino. What makes this product, and hundreds of other common food items red, is beetle juice. Well, close enough. Natural red food coloring is most commonly derived from grinding and boiling up the exoskeleton of Cochineal beetles that are found mostly in Mexico and South America. In the food industry, cochineal coloring is referred to by more palatable names, mostly "carmine" and the euphemistic "crimson lake."

photo courtesy sxc.hu
Foods containing this natural food coloring cause an allergic reaction in some people. It is not suitable for vegetarians, vegans or Jews and Muslims who follow kosher or halal diets. Back in 1998, The Center for Science in Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group, urged the United States Federal Food and Drug Administration to improve labeling of or ban cochineal food. After a decade, in January 2009, FDA passed a new regulation requiring carmine and cochineal to be listed by name on the label for all food and cosmetic products in the statement of ingredients.

Starbucks' bug-infused Strawberry Frappuccino should not come as a surprise. Most red or pink foods such as yogurts, fruit juices, smoothies, candy or cake contain carmine or cochineal, meaning bug scales.

My former career involved working closely with processed food companies, so I have been following this topic closely. In my experience, food manufacturers like General Mills and Kellogg are generally unapologetic about using carmine, since cochineal dye has been used as a coloring agent since the 15th century and considered safe. Since beetle juice is cheaper than substitutes such as beet juice, and considered better than artificial red dyes since it is "naturally" derived, food and cosmetic companies use it widely.

Shortly after the FDA ruling was passed, all food manufacturers started disclosing carmine or cochineal in their list of ingredients. Since then, carmine has been the subject of documentaries on Science and Discovery channels. However, it bugs me that consumers are surprised when they read about beetle extract in their food products, such as Starbucks' Strawberry Frappuccino, clearly unaware they have been feeding the same to their kids for years. Clearly carmine or cochineal does not scream "extract from insect scale," which would make any food unappetizing. However, I am thankful ABC News, CBS News and others are bringing this weird ingredient onto the consumer's radar.

Since I am not Andrew Zimmern or Bear Grylls, I refuse to consume or pay for foods laced with bug scales. I assume most people would refuse as well when they find out the truth behind natural red food coloring found in almost all red, pink or purple food products. I have seen carmine listed in Yoplait, Trix and Dannon Strawberry yogurts and smoothies, packaged red velvet cake, ice creams, Ocean Spray ruby red grapefruit juice, and several colorful kids cereals that claim they are naturally colored. Of course, there are several products where carmine or cochineal is not listed, such as those that are not packaged. For example, almost all red velvet cakes that are naturally colored contain bug extract.

My refusal stems from the risk of potential allergies, and also from an aversion to eating bugs. And I believe when I am buying a strawberry sorbet that is not marketed as bug sorbet, I am being duped. I could settle for something that is less pink, but will not eat beetles simply because it is better for corporate margins. There are alternatives. For example, Stonyfield's strawberry yogurt, which typically costs $1.89 for 4 oz. compared to $0.99 for Yoplait, is colored with beet juice. Sure, the color is not as vivid, and the price is a premium, but it is something I am willing to pay for to avoid eating insect extract.

Note: Also published on Yahoo News and Yahoo Voices. Author retains copyright.

11 comments:

  1. Very interesting. I had no idea, although I do know that a variety of bugs often end up in the food we eat...we just can't see them. Oh well!

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  2. Still not listed in Ocean Spray juice beverages, such as cranberry or cranberry-cherry.
    I'm dealing with a major anaphylaxis reaction thanks to these products...

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    1. I have had major allergic reactions which stemmed from products i believe must contain carmine; among my serious reactions, they were from the following: red cherry chapstick, ruby red grapefruit juice, fun dip (candy), and a skin reaction to cheek blush, which i found out had carmine in. I don't believe our lives should be played with in this manner!

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  3. "My refusal stems from the risk of potential allergies"

    I was with you up to this line. The statement mind one question: do you refuse to eat things containing peanuts due to risk of potential allergies? How about shellfish? Both of these are far more likely to cause allergies than carmine. Thus it seems to me that this statement is one of fear tactics, not of sound reasoning.

    Of course, while I find myself voicing the soapbox of a differing viewpoint, I might as well point out that as gross as the thought of carmine is, there are plenty of other foods worth more attention by the sensitive eater. May particular favorite is cheese—a food normally though of as being good—but which needs rennet, which is taken from the stomach of a cow, to be made.

    I find nothing particularly gross about suddenly knowing I am eating an extract of an insect when I didn't know before; many cultures dine on insects. Indeed, non-insect eating cultures are in the minority compared to their insect eating brethren. And, as far as protein sources go, insects are more eco-friendly than traditional sources such as beef.

    In the end, I think that our industrialized society has become so detached from where our food comes from, that we are even grossed out by foods that our ancestors produced the had way. We should be focused on the plethora of newly developed artificial chemicals that we are consuming, and what those are doing to our body, instead of spreading fear over these foods that have been consumed for generations

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    1. My mom offered my son some red velvet cake the other day. I knew it likely had bug extract in it, but he is not allergic to carmine, so I explained to her (again) but let him eat it. What really bothers me is 1) companies are doing this on purpose, only because it is cheaper than beet juice or lycopene. 2) They are feeding it to people who may be vegan, and people who may have a serious allergic reaction to it. I have allergies to one food (turmeric), I can eat it but not touch it raw to my face without breaking into hives. When you are unable to breathe after eating a food, you will understand how serious a reaction can be.

      I bought the Strawberry frap today. Tasted good without the bugs. Strawberry drinks should not be colored with bugs, period!

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    2. This enrages me. For YEARS I have dealt with DEBILITATING STOMACH PAIN. I had been in so many directions searching for the cause. Endoscopy. Colonoscopy. Stool sampling, blood samples, cultures. Years believing I must have an undiagnosed food allergy, or sensitivity. Eating healthy food but getting sicker and sicker. My only allergy upon testing? INSECTS! So, you want to pretend that if you didn't know it was a bug and it looks prettier it is safe for everyone?? Years of keeping food diaries and reading every label. It should be listed just like peanuts or dairy! Why should I and many others go through this!? Corporations are sick and so are the sheep who cater to them.

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  4. I have a few pictures of myself after eating carmine. I look like I've been beaten to near death. One was from eating a Red tortellini and other from a gummy bear vitamin. I wish I could post my photos. During the time, I could not breath and the swelling took 4 days to go away. It was very frightening all 6 times. I'm glad I figured out what was causing it. My started when I was age 16 wearing purple eyeshadows. My eyes would get very red, itch, I'd sneeze and my nose ran. It wasn't until I was 26 that I could not ingest it. For some reason my reaction to carmine got worse over the years. Id rather eat crushed insects (natural) than Red #40 but my body won't let me. It would be nice if they used BEET JUICE instead. I'll pay the extra money just to wear purple and pink eye shadows again.

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  5. Gwen, I too suffered years from reactions to products containing carmine. One minute it was eye makeup, then shampoo, port wine and even blackberry cobbler. It wasn't until I drank a Starbucks drink several years ago and read carmine under the ingredients list that I figured out the culprit. I had always read ingredients lists after having an allergic reaction, but until the Starbucks incident, none had listed Carmine on the label. I am a pretty healthy eater, so if I have a fruit smoothie, and it says it has bananas, strawberries, soy protein and natural color, and I have consumed all of these ingredients without incidence, then how was I to figure out the culprit. In the health food industry, which I was working in during this time, natural color typically meant beet juice. I suffered needlessly for years because the FDA failed to make manufacturers list this. I am now concerned because I have been reading that it is in some pharmaceutical drugs. If a person is already in a life threatening situation and injected with something they are highly allergic to, this could be deadly.I have actually went into anaphylactic shock from consuming carmine.

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  6. Dalia, thank you for posting your informative article about carmine. After 62 years I finally learn the truth of our not so rose colored world. Sure wish I had been more curious and less trusting about how cherry, strawberry and raspberry food products got their color. My assumption was the color came from the fruit. I don't care what they ate in the 15th century because they had horrible sanitation habits. I'd like to think that we have learned something as a so-called civilized society over the past 500 years to satisfy our culinary desires. I'm starting my own tradition...NO CARMINE.

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  7. I can understand people's suburban aversion towards carmine, but if you REALLY want to kow what is in your food then BUY from your local farmer and stop buying processed junk....make your own! Better yet, grow your own!
    I understand the issue with the vegans, but Lord forgive me, I am just not sympathetic to the vegan plight, if anyone stood by a field and literally watched a field being combined, you would understand what I am talking about. Not only are a gazillion insects gobbled up by the combine harvesting soybeans, oats, corn etc but so are rabbits, pheasants, geese and a LOT of other poor creatures including deer. I used to work in a cannery and I can tell you that there is NO SUCH THING as pain free processed food...I saw for myself all of the creatures, and their remnants, that came down the belt with the food. Oh yumm! At least you now KNOW that carmine is there....the food processing laws actually have tolerance levels for how many "bugs and stuff" are allowed in the food.

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  8. I am 68 years old and just found out on July 25, 2013 about carmine. Oh my goodness. I love yogurt especailly the blueberry, but not anymore. All I can say is I hope I can find a brand that does not use carmine. This is so disgusting to learn this. I truly wonder almost everyday about us American people and where we are headed. It is a shame.

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