Hey, guess what? You have probably been eating foods colored by ground-up insects for quite sometime now. I'm sure you did not know this. Carmine (a red food coloring made from beetles) has been used as a coloring agent in many foods from yogurt, ice cream, juices, candies, and even in cosmetics.
University of Michigan allergist Dr. James L. Baldwin reported a number of patients with an apparent life-threatening allergic reaction to the insect-based food coloring. Cases of asthma and hives and even anaphylactic shock, have been described. The carmine food dye may be a risk for those individuals that are sensitive or allergic to the ground-up insects.
The NY Times reported a recent rule change at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that will mandate food manufacturers list carmine on a food label. At present, the FDA does not require the components of food coloring agents to be named on a label.
Natural food colorings can be added to foods and this new rule change is set to begin in 2011 (although food companies may voluntarily list the components of natural food coloring agents sooner). It is highly likely that ingesting natural food dyes won't cause any particular health problem, however if you experience an allergic reaction after ingesting a food product with carmine food dye, it may be something to discuss with a food-allergy savvy allergist.
Dr. Clifford W. Bassett is an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the Long Island College Hospital and on the faculty of NYU School of Medicine. He is the current vice chair for public education committee of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. No information in this blog is intended as medical advice to any reader or intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition.