Is There a Bug in Your Juice?
New Food Labels Might Say
By JANE ZHANG
Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
January 27, 2006
Food makers may not want to dwell on it, but the ingredient that gives Dannon Boysenberry yogurt and Tropicana Ruby Red Grapefruit juice their distinctive colors comes from crushed female cochineal beetles.
Too much information? Some consumers would say there hasn't been nearly enough.
Pressed by consumer advocates, the Food and Drug Administration is expected to publish a food-labeling proposal online today that would require companies to disclose when a food contains beetle-derived colorings including vivid-red "carmine" and bright-orange "cochineal" (pronounced coach-in-EEL). The public has 60 days to comment before a final ruling is made.
Under current FDA regulations, food labels must identify certain man-made colorings by name, such as FD&C Red No. 40. But for carmine, cochineal and other naturally occurring ingredients, companies can use terms such as "color added" or, oddly, "artificial color."
Bugged by the loophole, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington public-health advocacy group, and a small but vocal group of consumers who are allergic to the ingredients have pushed for stiffer rules. Joining the chorus are vegetarians, who don't want to eat insects, and consumers observing kosher dietary practices. Products containing carmine "may look like kosher," but they aren't, says Rabbi Moshe Elefant, chief operating officer of the kosher division of the Orthodox Union, a leading certifier of kosher products. "There are a lot of people who will not be happy to know that they are eating products that contain dried beetle."
A petition CSPI submitted to the FDA in 1998 and complaints from allergic consumers spurred the FDA's proposal today. The petition suggested that labels disclose carmine or cochineal content with the language, "Artificial color: carmine/cochineal extract (insect based)." The food industry objects, both to the word "insect" and the use of "artificial color" together with "carmine" and "cochineal."
"That lengthy type of description is likely to be unnecessary," says Robert Earl, senior director of nutrition policy at Food Products Association, a food- and beverage-industry group. "It's not part of the requirement for other animal-derived ingredients. Lard is 'lard.' It doesn't say 'pork' after it. 'Milk' doesn't say 'from cow.' 'Butter' doesn't say 'from cow.'"
The FDA's proposal will drop the word "insect" and require that the coloring ingredients be labeled as vivid-red "carmine" or bright-orange "cochineal," says FDA spokeswoman Julie Zawisza.
Some food companies -- Dannon Co.; PepsiCo Inc., the maker of Tropicana; and General Mills Inc., the maker of Yoplait yogurt -- have already begun listing "carmine" on labels by name. Others have taken steps to eliminate carmine from products, replacing it in some cases with synthetic colorings. In April 2002, Dannon replaced carmine with FD&C Red No. 40 in some Light 'n Fit yogurts, including strawberry and raspberry flavors, says company spokesman Michael Neuwirth.
Even when they are clearly listed on the label, cochineal and carmine remain a mystery to many consumers. Spaniards found Mexicans cultivating the red cochineal beetles in 1518. Today, the bugs are raised on farms in Peru, Mexico and the Canary Islands, where they feed on cacti. The bodies of female beetles are dried, ground and heated, and the colored powder is filtered out. It takes 70,000 beetles to make one pound of marketable carmine.
Demand for cochineal products plummeted after the arrival of synthetic colors in the 19th century, but interest in them has revived in recent years, along with other naturally derived colors. The current global market for cochineal-derived products is estimated at between $30 million and $40 million a year.
The cochineal pigment also is used in cosmetics and textiles. "It's the most stable, natural color," says Tracy Mattingly, product developer at German chemicals maker Degussa AG, which makes products containing the cochineal pigment. It yields colors ranging from orange to strawberry-red to magenta.
Although food companies have long maintained that the pigment is safe and allergies are rare, some consumers have severe reactions. Keri Riegger, a 39-year-old full-time mother from Ann Arbor, Mich., still recalls the purple candy she consumed 11 years ago and the anaphylactic-shock reaction that followed: Her face swelled and breathing was difficult. Eight years ago, she drank grapefruit juice and experienced the same reaction. Only after the juice ingredients were analyzed was her allergy finally diagnosed. Now, Ms. Riegger avoids red and purple candy and reddish salad dressings.
Vegetarians are rooting for the label change. A year ago, while sitting at a movie theater, Lucinda Hoffmaster first saw the word "carmine" on a box of Hershey Co.'s Good & Plenty candies. Not knowing what the word meant, the Montgomery, Ala., resident went home and Googled the word. "I was just horrified," recalls the 57-year-old Ms. Hoffmaster, the mother of two vegetarian daughters. "I am thinking, 'Why do they put dried bugs' carcasses in a candy, a product marketed for children more so than adults?'" She has since stopped eating the candy. Hershey declined to comment.
Write to Jane Zhang at Jane.Zhang@wsj.com1