It might be hard to believe that insects — real, actual bugs — are used in modern food products. (We don’t just mean incidental parts that happen to be in grain and Fig Newtons and the like.)
Typical responses to this information: “No company in America would put insects in food on purpose,” or “The food industry stopped doing things like that a century ago.” Those are usually followed immediately by a plea: “Please tell me I’m not really eating bugs.”
by Nancy J Price
Insects in food? Don’t bug out
Sorry, it’s true: you’re probably eating bugs. Sorry. And yes, we mean insects are added to food found in modern, first-world countries — and not just in those creepy lollipops that have crickets embedded in them or the worm in a bottle of mezcal.
The most major bug-food you’re likely to encounter on a fairly regular basis is carmine (aka carminic acid, cochineal, Carmine 40, E120, Crimson Lake, Natural Red 4 and CI75470).
Carmine/cochineal is used as a red, pink or purple dye, and is made from the crushed female Dactylopius coccus, a little beetle bug that lives on certain cactus plants in South and Central America.
Carmine is a bold colorant — it’s what makes a lot of strawberry yogurt pink, enhances the shade of several brands of pink grapefruit juice, livens up candy like Nerds and Mentos, brings out the red in some popular frozen dinners — plus is found in products like shampoo and clothing dye. Though they look pretty blah on the outside, there’s clearly lots of pigment inside those little critters. Another thing that makes this insect-based colorant extra attractive is its stability in heat and acidic environments.
Ick? Well, just think: By using carmine, at least the front label of whatever product can tout that it “contains only natural colors.” (Of course, cochineal extract is not vegan, nor is it kosher.)
Starbucks famously faced a PR nightmare in 2102 after customers realized what they were sipping and started seeing red, leading to headlines like, “Starbucks Strawberry Frappuccinos dyed with crushed up cochineal bugs, report says” from CBS, and “Is That A Crushed Bug In Your Frothy Starbucks Drink?” over at NPR. (Starbucks quickly responded by saying they would stop using “natural cochineal extract as a colorant.”)
A bug’s life
Another common bug-related food isn’t actually made from bugs, but bybugs. By the little guys’ secretions.
First up is confectioner’s glaze (otherwise known as shellac, candy glaze, pharmaceutical glaze, “glazing agent” and E904), which is produced by some insects actually related to the little carmine makers — they’re both in the Coccidae family. The glaze is used to make things pretty and glossy, and gives them another layer of protection.
Again, it’s the girls doing the heavy lifting — this food-grade glaze/shellac is secreted by the female lac bug (Kerria lacca), who lives in the forest of Thailand and India. She guzzles down some tree sap, and out the other end comes the raw shellac. The resin is then scraped from the trees, melted down and filtered, and then dropped on to your Junior Mints, shiny apples, into your Chex Mix, as well as hundreds of other products — even pills.
What’s really wild about shellac, though, is that it’s also the same stuff that is used to refinish wood floors (and once was the main material used to make gramophone records in the days before vinyl). Not too many things can boast of being both a foodstuff and a household varnish!
What’s the buzz?
Finally, of course, there’s what the bees make: wax and honey. Honey has long been a common food product, and the beeswax — in addition to being used in candles and beauty products — is used to shine up everything from fruit to candy to gumballs.
Bugs in history
The insects mentioned herein and their creations have been used for not just hundreds but thousands of years, by both primitive societies and modern-day man.
It’s interesting to realize that even in this day and age where seemingly every conceivable thing can be made inside a laboratory or factory, these little tiny bugs are still helpful enough to be part of billions of daily lives… even if some of us would really rather forget all about the creepy-crawly critter connection.