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.


Buglady said...

Well I guess your other option is to eat artificial red coloring that is a product from the petroleum industry. Studies from Europe are showing more how the artificial colors are causing behavioral problems in children so i think going back to these natural dyes may help with this problem. Also this is a sustainable way to make dye and by promoting cactus growth it will help cool the planet. I think a win win situation.
In a prefect world we would not have to color our food to eat it but today that's what the majority of society wants.

Tina Sams said...

yes - but truth in labeling would allow people to make a choice.

Craig said...

I am sorry, it was labeled correctly, yes? It said what the ingredient was didn't it? If you don't recognise it shouldn't you do what you did and look it up? Should the label have said "coloring provided by mashing up pregnant cactus beetles"?

Jay said...

No, the other option is not to eat artificial red coloring. Companies can choose not to color their foods at all. The consumer can then choose whether they're going to buy them or not. We live in an over-stimulated society, so it's not likely people will buy things that are not pretty. If I want to know what's inside of my food I make it. Over-processed items offer convenience, but there's a trade-off that one should be aware of when they make that choice.

Tina Sams said...

My point is that if a company makes a product and chooses to market to a certain segment of the population who would be offended by an unnecessary ingredient, WHY USE IT?
Certainly they can't be that oblivious.

Maytro Haulllo said...

Inflexible people are problems. Eating a largely plant based diet is definitely best for person and planet but worrying about the fate of some bugs is dangerously insane and will never win out. I'm happy people think about these things, but I will continue to use dyes of this kind as well as eat honey with no problem what-so-ever.

bizona said...

"Dangerously insane"? How so? Why is it insane to worry about the fate and well-being of other creatures and where is the danger in that? Sounds like you're just trying to make yourself feel better by believing you're the one who is in the right and doing things the right way but really you're just doing things in the socially accepted way. There is a difference and when you attach labels like "dangerously insane" to people who think about these things, it is, in fact, you who are being an inflexible person.

Tina from CT said...

Maybe we, as a society, should attempt to stop using artificial coloring all together!? I was a vegan for one year (and a vegetarian for 16 after that and still going). Being a vegan is difficult, especially when the labels are not entirely precise (lecithin, for example - can be derived from plants and/or animals. Few labels indicate where it originates - I buy only items with soy lecithin). I won't get started on gelatin and how many products contain it.

I do not want to eat bugs..period. I don't want pieces of cow/pig ligament bi-products in my food, etc. I think people that are conscious of animal rights/health issues, take the time to read the labels and understand what they are consuming. It's the fast track that doesn't realize what they are ingesting, teenagers on the run from one event to the other - moms in a hurry at a gas station just reach for somethign that resembles juice, etc.

I think YOU may a very good point. My point is - why color things? It's only to make them more appealing to the eye. It adds no nutritional value and will only cause pricing to rise more in the food industry for the shear cost of shipping (prices of gas) it somewhere.

Anonymous said...

I'm glad this was posted and I found it. I would not have known about this coloring. It is through these tidbits of info that we learn more about our food, its impact on us and our planet. So no, it is not insane to be looking into these things!

Anonymous said...

I agree with the side that claims this is shady marketing at best. The argument doesn't come from them using the coloration, but from them using the coloration derived from bugs then MARKETING to those who would NOT want to be using that very product.

Marketing is a very deliberate, well thought out process. So at some point, the fact that they are marketing an animal product to people strongly opposed to using animal products DOES cross their minds.

To continue marketing to that particular group or avoid putting a label such as "contains animal products or byproducts" is unethical.

Tina Sams said...

Yes - thank you, anonymous. That was what I was trying to say in that whole long post, and you said it in a paragraph. Perfect.

Amanda said...

Thanks for posting this! I am really tired of food labels that basically require a PhD to decode. Many companies, even those that target the "health food" demographic, hide behind the chemical names of objectionable ingredients

Anonymous said...

As someone who grew up in Europe I know full well the horrid effects of artificial colouring. In the eighties when I was a toddler a slew of different 'E' numbers (as they're known in the UK) would do horrible things to my behaviour and temper. I'll take a bug any day over that. I personally agree with Craig; mass ignorance of what carmine actually is cannot be blamed, but I appreciate your feelings and enjoyed your post.

Anonymous said...

Let us bear in mind that carmine has been used as a colorant since pre-civilization. On the other hand, so has hemlock.

That being said, though, I think it's important to not get into such a fuss about utilizing insect-derived substances. I can COMPLETELY understand the vegan point of view, and that is not, of course, what I'm referring to. I'm referring to the "EW BUGS THATS GROSS" crowd.

Do you eat honey?
Do you use lip balm or soap with beeswax?
Have you ever eaten a piece of lettuce?

All of the above either contain or are harvested from the homes/labor of insects. As for lettuce (and nearly every other thing that enters your mouth), you should understand that microscopic living organism are on EVERY SINGLE LIVING/ONCE LIVING THING. Where do we draw a line?

It seems that companies using carmine is not so much a product of our "shady modern age," so much as a revulsion that is entirely the product of a "civilized society" is. What's so gross about eating bugs? I mean think about it. You're not revolted by eating lobster are you? Crustaceans, too, are arthropods...

Food for thought (no pun intended).

Tina Sams said...

I don't believe there WAS any "eww bugs" fuss.
The post was simply about the fact that there are many vegans who don't know about it. They can choose to avoid beeswax.
In fact in the very first paragraph, I state that there are very few foods that don't cross my lips. I am a wild foods enthusiast and have written a cookbook on wild edible plants.

Anonymous said...

I do not eat most food as I choose to stand by my religious principles, so I was looking at the back of the ingredients to my mini battenberg box. And I was wondering what sort of colouring they had used for it, since it states that it's of 'natural colourings'.

I looked up for the meanings Chocineal and Lutein. And I almost choked on my battenbergs when I read that it was of red female bugs. It digusted me. Especially with what you've mentioned as well, what a way to trick the vegans. And I agree, eating chocolate covered bugs is a choice. But not when you're oblivious as to what is in the ingredients of the food you consume.

Most Companies are really just shady.

Anonymous said...

Im fully aware of the use of this bug as a colorant for many foods, clothing, yarn, cosmetics and a billion other things. Its paracitic to the caticus and is usually grown especially for theese purposes. Im glad to be eating and or cosuming this, its much better than something chemical cooked up in a lab. FYI when a package states "artificial and natural flavorings or colorings" this could be anything in the conciviable world from boot scrapings to tile glue.

Michelle said...

In reply to: "I am really tired of food labels that basically require a PhD to decode." Let's ponder this for a moment. Are food labels that complicated to figure out? You don't need a PhD, only Wikipedia. Furthermore, (playing the devil's advocate here) it is the responsibility of no company to monitor what you put into your mouth. It is yours alone. If you're concerned about something on the ingredients label, look it up. Besides, where else will you get the lovely red coloring that society naively screams for? What will you use if not the all-natural carmine? Red dye #3, Erythrosine, a very common synthetic dye -- the disodium salt of 2,4,5,7-tetraiodofluorescein???

Sharon said...

Here's a thought for everybody.....
REAL FOOD DOES NOT NEED LABELS! You know what it is when you see it, smell it or taste it. If a label is required, then it was manufactured for marketing appeal and a shelf life. Food we put into our bodies should NOT have a long shelf life.

Anonymous said...

Just wanted you to know I appreciated the blog (and all the comments).


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