Many people get a little queasy when they think about eating bugs. But as I’ve mentioned before, bugs are popping into the culinary world, from restaurants to protein bars made from cricket flour. If I were to ever try bugs, I’d rather try them in the ground-up form, rather than seeing the actual insect I’m ingesting. But little did I know that I’ve eaten bugs before — and I’m not just talking about bits of insects that make their way into processed foods.
One food coloring, known as Red Dye 4, cochineal extract or carmine, is made from crushed up insects. While this dye is deemed safe — although you can be allergic to it, which is all the more reason to know about it — it’s also a little yucky to think about. And if you’re a vegan, kosher, or halal consumer, it’s necessary to be informed of the animals that are being used in foods. Keep in mind that the use of carmine isn’t just limited to food either; it’s also used in cosmetics too.
From certain popular candies to red-colored yogurts (been there, done that one!), you’d be surprised where carmine is lurking. I’m a label reader, but I wasn’t even aware that carmine was bug-derived. And while it is required to be labeled, if you don’t know what the term means, it doesn’t do you much good. After all, it’s not like there is a sticker on a package that screams “Carmine Means Bugs!” It’s all the more reason to avoid foods with dyes in them and to go for less processed fare anyway.
One natural-health consumer group, Citizens for Health, is building a comprehensive list of foods that contain this insect-based food coloring as part of its commitment to transparent and accurate labeling of food products. The organization is also asking consumers to sign a petition started by the Center for Science in the Public Interest asking food companies to better label products that contain the insect-based ingredient or switch to plant-based alternatives. The plant-based coloring options are significantly more palatable if bugs turn your tummy; purple sweet potatoes, black carrots and purple carrots are natural food coloring sources that are replacing synthetic colorings and those derived from bugs. One bonus, besides not being bugs, is that these natural food coloring options are rich in antioxidants, so they may even have health benefits.
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