We’ve known for years that the term “natural” when it comes to food is a dubious one. Technically, everything is “natural”, even chemical additives – hey, they started as something found in nature. Any savvy food shopper knows that “natural” as a marketing term is meaningless.
But what about when it comes to the ingredient list? “Natural” flavours and colours don’t necessarily mean that they’ve come naturally from the product at hand, and synthetic colors haven’t necessarily been cooked up in a lab – strawberry candies don’t contain any actual strawberries. But what makes those candy strawberries red?
Bugs. Pretty little red bugs. C’mon. Bugs are natural. Although on ingredients lists, you’ll often find cochineal extract listed simply as “synthetic color”, the product itself is made from dried female cochineal beetles, a tiny insect that lives on cactus plants in Central and South America.
If you’ve inhaled the occasional fly, this might not worry you so much, but for vegetarians and people with allergies, eating bugs is a big deal. Problem is, cochineal extract (sometimes listed correctly, often listed as “carmine” or simply “artificial color” or “synthetic color”) shows up in some rather interesting products – I’ll be reconsidering my morning glass of pink grapefruit juice now that I know it’s made pink not by the actual grapefruit, but by the inclusion of bug juice. Yoplait strawberry yogurt, Good & Plenty candy, red popsicles… yep, all made with bugs.
The US Food and Drug Administration has received complaints about the lack of appropriate labelling with regards to cochineal extract, and food activists hope to have the law changed by the end of the year so the ingredients are labelled more clearly. While allergic reactions to cochineal extract are rare, they do occur, particularly in factory workers who are regularly exposed to the product.
In the meantime, it’s hard for the average consumer to know what contains cochineal beetles and what doesn’t. A reasonable rule of thumb is to assume that any and all candies and junk food probably contain synthetic dyes. When it comes to foods otherwise considered healthy such as that yogurt or grapefruit juice, you’ve got to read the labels and watch for flags like “synthetic color”, “artificial color”, or the term carmine. Also beware of the term “natural color”, because it doesn’t necessarily mean that the color comes from the ingredients in the product.