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"Beetle" juice: Is your food bugged?

Warning: if you have a delicate stomach—stop reading this now. Ditto if you're eating.

For you heartier souls out there… A show of hands, please: How many of you know that many common foods and beverages with a blush—think yogurt, ice cream, candies, fruit drinks—get their reddish (pinkish, purplish or orange) glow from carmine and cochineal, colorings extracted from the dried bodies of teensy female cochineal insects, sometimes referred to as cochineal beetles?

Think we're kidding? If only. The fact is that until now, unbeknownst to most consumers, food and cosmetic companies have had the luxury of listing these bug juices, so to speak, simply as "artificial colors" or "color added" in their ingredients.

Feel sick? Join the club. The good news: the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week, under pressure from consumer advocates, ruled that manufacturers that use these pigments in eats and makeup must begin listing them by name, albeit they are not required to disclose they hail from insects.

"Naming those ingredients on labels will help people who suffered allergic reactions determine if the colors were the culprits," Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), said in a statement after the rule change was announced. But he added that the agency should have gone further, given that many unwitting consumers may be sensitive to—not to mention revolted by the notion of—bug bits in their grub.

CSPI petitioned the feds a decade ago to clearly label or ban the additives after physicians in Switzerland, France and the U.S. (most notably allergist James Baldwin at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor) found that carmine and cochineal extract could cause allergic reactions ranging from sneezing to asthma as well as anaphylactic shock in some sensitive individuals.

"Ideally, the FDA should have exterminated these critter-based colorings altogether. The only way people can determine that they are sensitive to them is to suffer repeated reactions, including potentially life-threatening anaphylactic reactions," Jacobson said. "Also, the FDA should have required labels to disclose that carmine and cochineal are extracted from insects, which many consumers—including vegetarians, Jews and Muslims—would be interested to know."  Ya think?

Bon appétit.

Editor's Note (posted 1/11/09): In response to some concerns about the entomological accuracy of this post and photo, we have taken down the image that was originally posted, because it appears not to be a cochineal insect. We are checking with the source of that photo to confirm its identity. The term "beetle" is often used to describe this insect, but we have changed the wording in the post to "cochineal insect" for strict accuracy. This post is based on the FDA's announced rule change, which was published on January 5 and which we link to in the blog (and again here) for interested readers eager to know more about how the agency reached its conclusions.

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