Sunday, September 09, 2007

Vegans Beware - Cochineal

This post has been rattling around in my head for several days. I had to really think about why I care about this topic. I'm not even a vegetarian - or even a particularly healthy eater. There are few foods that don't eventually cross my lips.

However, I do have many friends that are extremely careful about what they eat. Some for health reasons (allergies, heart health, blood pressure, medication contraindications, etc.), some for religious reasons, and some because they have strong personal feelings. It seems to me that we each deserve to know about the contents of our foods.
So, the other day, when I reached for a bottle of a new beverage, marketed to the "healthy crowd", it came as a little shock to see cochineal as a colorant in the ingredients listing.
Why did this bother me? Because cochineal is a natural colorant made from bugs that live on cactus. The most prized of the bugs are the pregnant females, because their bodies hold the most dye. It does makes a lovely dye, and many of my friends who are into dying use it. Up until the late 1800's it was about the only means of getting a true red. On the other hand, MANY people don't know what the word means.
After doing a little research, it turns out that this colorant is also known as carmine and carminic acid. These terms show up on many food products, and even the term "natural colorings" can mean cochineal. Fruit juices, yogurts, popsicles, sauces, sodas, and candies (my beloved Good 'n Plenty!) all contain this coloring.
I posted the question to the Yahoo list: Would it bother you to find out you were eating bugs? There were many answers, including the idea that plants are also living things. Some wondered what the difference between this, and chocolate covered ants would be.
So I've spent a few days thinking about that.
The difference is this: When you eat chocolate covered bugs, it is clear that the product contains bugs. It is then a choice that you can make with full knowledge. With cochineal, carmine, or carminic acid - or worse - natural coloring, it is not clear. Reading up on this, there is quite a bit of evidence that this colorant can cause severe allergic reactions for some people, but the same can be said of the FD&C colorants (which I *believe* must be noted on ingredient labels). More than that, though, is that the terms are not used enough in common everyday language to be known.
For people who are living a choice not to eat (non-plant) living creatures, this seems almost like a dirty trick. My sister removed beeswax from the formulation of her soaps so that everyone could use them. Marketing to a group of people who are conscious of the ingredients in the products they use, it just makes a lot of sense not to use ingredients that would be objectionable when good substitutes are readily available.
So - that is my concern. This particular product I picked up the other day was being marketed towards the same group that would include vegans. Their insensitivity was probably the shocking part. I wrote to the company (Sobe - a division of Pepsi) on Wednesday, and have not gotten a response as yet.
I know for many reading this, it will seem trivial. Maybe it is. It just seems really, really wrong to me, and another nasty little part of the puzzle that is our food supply.
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