The colorful world of bugs is coming to your dinner plate. Actually, it’s already there, you probably just don’t know about it. Beginning in 2011, you’ll be told when you’re sipping bug juice. Researchers have found that an insect extract known as cochineal extract or carmine can cause sickness or even death. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has ruled that companies must list the item on labels. The crushed, dried bugs create a brilliant red dye used in some cheese, yogurt, ice cream, fruit drinks, alcohol and cosmetics to make them pink, purple or reddish. The colorful insect lives on cacti in Mexico but also can be found in Oklahoma, including Oklahoma County and the Wichita Mountains, said Neil Garrison, recently retired naturalist with Martin Park Nature Center. The industry moved to the bugs because of concerns about artificial colorings’ links to cancer, including the now-banned Red Dye No. 2. "I think it’s more common because it’s considered a more natural extract,” said Christina Dewitt, an Oklahoma State University food chemist. "Anything that comes from a plant or animal is an extract that is considered not artificial. ... Natural colorings have become more popular.” Some manufacturers voluntarily list cochineal or carmine on labels. In a quick check at a local grocery store, The Oklahoman found that strawberry Yoplait yogurt and Jumex strawberry nectar labels specifically list the substance. Other foods and drinks contain the extract but list it as "natural coloring,” as is allowed.
Health risksAbout one in 10,000 people may have a reaction to the substance. Also, the FDA estimates up to 15 million Americans would avoid the substance because they are vegetarians or for religious reasons. In one case, University of Minnesota allergist James Baldwin reported that a woman who’d eaten a red frozen ice product three hours earlier arrived at an emergency room with hives, asthma and virtually no blood pressure. She was stabilized. Baldwin’s tests and research showed that the frozen ice had two "natural” color additives, including cochineal extract. He pinpointed her reaction to cochineal extract. The executive director of a consumer watchdog group, Center for Science in the Public Interest, learned of that reaction and others in the late 1990s. The group filed its first FDA petition in 1998 seeking labeling for the substance, more research and a possible ban. The FDA also learned of at least 11 adverse event reports linked to the substance. The FDA received numerous comments on the issue, including one suggesting labeling would burden manufacturers because some customers might avoid products. The FDA rejected that notion. So did Jeff Cronin, Center for Science in the Public Interest spokesman. "How about food manufacturers color their food with real food?” he said. "Why use Red 40 or carmine to color your strawberry yogurt red? Why not use real strawberries?”
Oklahoma livingLook around Oklahoma County and you can find prickly pear cactus spreading out in the sunshine in overgrazed pastures or wherever the soil’s not the best. Get close and you might see what looks like dabs of tissue paper stuck on the plant. That’s the protective shield made by the tiny insects. If you scrape up some, put it on your hand and squish it, red juices pop out, Garrison said. "I think it’s a pretty benign additive to foods, in my opinion. Probably the shock value ... people say, ‘What? They’re intentionally putting bugs in stuff I eat?’ That has a grossness factor to it,” Garrison said. "If you get right down to it, like honey, that’s a direct product of insects.” He said the issue is much like how bees make honey: they take up flower nectar, process it in their stomach and regurgitate it. "What if they relabeled bee honey, ‘bee vomit?’” Garrison asked. He said he has no problem with the labeling requirement or concern over the bug derivative’s use. Not everyone feels the same way. "We’ll have to decide, natural products with allergic problems or artificial dyes with cancer problems,” Dewitt said. But Cronin said he’ll continue to pore over labels, searching for cochineal extract or carmine. He said manufacturers should go with the other option. "I think, like a lot of people, I prefer my food be colored by real ingredients,” he said. "Not bugs or chemicals.”