Seeing red: there are beetles in your juice

January 7, 2009 9:04:01 PM PST
It's been a common coloring since the ancient inhabitants of Mexico. But few know it's still around - and being eaten.

So, you know all those ground-up bugs you've been drinking and eating? Ooh ? awkward moment. You didn't know you were gulping down ground-up bugs, did you?

Well, it turns out that one of the best ways to make a "natural" red food coloring is to crush the dried bodies of the female Dactylopius coccus -- a cactus-eating insect from the Americas.

The resulting scarlet hue brightens some of our popular juices, candies, yogurts and ice creams. And the same coloring can be used in makeup including lipstick. Cochineal has been used for hundreds of years as a clothing dye - remember those British "Redcoats"?

Earlier this week the Food and Drug Administration issued a rule requiring manufacturers using the dye -- known as carmine, or cochineal extract -- to label it as such in foods and cosmetics.

But not because of the gross factor. Instead, the FDA is doing so to help prevent dangerous anaphylactic reactions in people who are allergic to the insects and are unknowingly ingesting and/or rubbing the colorful bug powder on their faces.

The labeling of "these color additives in all foods and cosmetics is necessary to ensure their safe use," stated the FDA report issued Monday.

The new requirement was, in part, a response to a citizen petition about the allergic reactions, first launched in 1998 by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, according to the FDA report. But the final rule doesn't go as far as the center had wanted: an overall ban of the ingredient or a required label to explain that carmine is "insect-derived."

"We wanted people to know that it comes from an insect," said Michael Jacobson, the center's executive director. "Vegetarians, Jews, anybody else who has concerns about eating animal products should know that."

It should be noted that cochineal allergies appear to be rare. The FDA collected 14 reports of adverse reactions during a 10-year period. And the agency is not considering it a "major food allergen" like other foods such as shellfish and tree nuts, which are covered by the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act of 2004.

A quick scan of the medical literature turned up a few reports of people with occupational asthma linked to carmine, including two workers at a carmine factory and two butchers who used the coloring in their sausages (both in Spain).

Manufacturers don't have to start adding the "carmine" or "cochineal extract" labels until 2011, but you can find many products from familiar brands that are already noting the special ingredient.