Got Bugs? Many Foods Colored With Extract From Tiny Beetle

Got bugs?

Got waffles, lipstick, yogurt or strawberry milk? How about candy, shampoo and nail polish?

The FDA says scattered allergic reactions are the basis for the rule concerning dye derived from the crushed cochineal bug.

Unknown and unnoticed by most consumers, the juice of a tiny beetle first used by 16th century Spanish explorers is responsible for red, pink, orange and purple coloring in hundreds of U.S. products.

Now, the Food and Drug Administration has decided to make food and cosmetic manufacturers identify the buggy source of carmine or cochineal extract, which may be identified only as "color added" in a product's list of ingredients.

There is no way to tell how many products contain the dyes, said Mike Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington: "It can be anything red."

Or other colors: Cochineal is bright orange, while its more purified form, known as carmine, is vivid red. They also may be found in purple or pink coloring.

Center for Science in the Public Interest has spent the last decade attempting to get the ingredient banned, based on reports of severe allergic reactions to the coloring, but even it hasn't been able to accumulate a complete list of products colored with the dye made from the female insect's crushed, dried body.

According to anecdotal cases published on the FDA's Web site, one girl ate a red ice pop and broke out in hives. A woman was hospitalized for five days after eating red candy. A woman who ate strawberry yogurt and fruit punch had difficulty breathing.

Such allergic reactions are the basis for the FDA's rule, which officially was posted recently.

"Cochineal extract and carmine are safe for the majority of the general population," FDA spokeswoman Stephanie Kwisnek said. "FDA is taking this action to protect the small number of consumers who are allergic to these color additives."

However, the labeling won't take effect for another two years.

Some manufacturers have begun voluntarily listing carmine as an ingredient on packaging. A check of supermarket shelves found both Dannon and Yoplait strawberry yogurts stating "colored with carmine" on their labels. And cosmetics manufacturer Aveda markets lipsticks free of "bright magenta red pigment extracted from the boiled, dried or crushed shells, wings and eggs of the female beetle Coccus cacti."

Cathy Cook, a spokeswoman for the International Association of Color Manufacturers, said, "The beverage companies have been doing voluntary labeling for some time now" and points out that the bug, used in dyes since the 1500s, has a long history of safe use. The trade group supports the FDA's labeling requirement. Adds Cook, "If people have a genuine medical need to avoid something, they can contact the companies."

But the Center for Science in the Public Interest thinks the voluntary and the required labeling are not enough. The center also wants labeling to let people know the coloring is from an insect, without consumers having to scurry to the dictionary. Vegans may want to know they are ingesting even minute residue from an insect, said Jacobson, as would people adhering to strict kosher laws.

The Juice Products Association in Washington, which represents 130 companies, supports the label requirement but balks at any requirement indicating the dyes' insect origins, pointing out that carmine is already the common name for the bug-derived dyes.

Palm Beach Gardens dietitian Christine Bandy said she has never encountered anyone allergic to carmine, but said, "Anything with a label is not natural anyway. The more clean and whole food is, you don't have to worry about it to begin with. That is the take-home message."

Winn-Dixie shopper Nina Sawyer, 24, of West Palm Beach, got a yogurt maker for the holidays, so she'll be avoiding the dubious dyes. But she was a fan of the store-bought varieties. Looking at another shopper's carmine-containing Dannon and Yoplait yogurt, she said, "You figure it has some bad stuff in it when it tastes so good."


Information from: The Palm Beach Post,