Beetles: Love Me Do

23 Sep 2014

The South American beetle has been used as food colorant for centuries, giving bright red colouring to soup, ketchup, sauces, jams and canned fruits. You may have seen recent controversies with coffee outlets starbucking their Frappuccinos with crushed bugs, and French food conglomerates including ground-up beetles in state-of-the-art yoghurt products. The use of cochineal (carmine […]

Beetles: Love Me Do

The South American beetle has been used as food colorant for centuries, giving bright red colouring to soup, ketchup, sauces, jams and canned fruits. You may have seen recent controversies with coffee outlets starbucking their Frappuccinos with crushed bugs, and French food conglomerates including ground-up beetles in state-of-the-art yoghurt products.

The use of cochineal (carmine acid) is quite common in food production. That doesn’t decrease the gross-out factor a whole lot, though.

The process

The cochineal insect is native to South America and Mexico, and, contrary to the popular nomenclature, they’re technically not beetles. In fact, they’re tiny insects which live on cactus plants. They feed on Red Cactus berries, which concentrate the colour in their bodies.

They are harvested by traditional and controlled methods, and then boiled in water, followed by a drying, crushing and hydration process from powder to final product. Check out the ingredient labels of any product that could have red dye and look for carmine acid, carmine or cochineal extract.

Health fears over artificial food additives have renewed the popularity of cochineal dyes.

Carmine isn’t just about colouring, either. Like astaxanthin – also a naturally occurring colorant, found in crustaceans and salmon – it’s an antioxidant, so it’s good for you. In fact, it’s 50 times stronger than vitamin E in that regard. It is certainly better for you than any synthetic colour derived from coal tar. Would you rather be eating a pigment created by insects – or a derivative of fossil fuel?

We have probably been eating ground-up red beetles for years. We just didn’t know it. Although no negative health effects have been reported from eating carmine, the name on the label can be misleading. People have the right to know what they’re eating, even if it does not pose a health risk. This is especially true when ingredients are derived from living creatures. The FDA’s food labelling requirements should be a lot clearer, and not cloaked in secret food industry codes that nobody else really understands.

As with most food labelling issues, awareness is the ultimate answer. If enough people become aware of the truth about carmine as a natural food colorant in food and its benefits when compared to artificial colorants, this could open the door for increased production, leading to a supply/demand boost for what is, after all, technically a natural product.

What’s required is that the health benefits of natural colorants like carmine need to be sold while downplaying the gross-out factor of eating, for example, crushed insects. With the right good old fashioned guerrilla marketing techniques that have been around as long as food colorants, who knows? – carmine might just go viral.

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