Bug based additives will be acknowledged

After a decade of pressure from a consumer advocacy group, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration will require the food industry to disclose a little known fact: The food dye that goes by the name of carmine - and several other aliases - is made from the crushed bodies of the cochineal insect. Starting in two years, food manufacturers will have to disclose cochineal-based food additives on their labels. The FDA created the new rule because people who've consumed products that range from yogurt to fruit drinks to candy have developed severe allergic reactions, some of which have been potentially fatal.

The insect in the spotlight is a female, flat, wingless beetle-like creature native to Mexico and South America. It produces a striking red color when crushed and is also favored by the cosmetics industry, which uses cochineal coloring in lipstick and other products. In addition to red, cochineal coloring is also used for related shades on the color wheel: pink, orange and purple.

"All food manufacturers are competing with each other and are trying to make their products more attractive," said Dr. Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital in New Hyde Park. "The reality is these food colorings serve no nutritional value. They're really there just for looks."

Several parent groups are calling for a ban of the bug-based dyes.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the FDA to create the new labeling rule after the center found some people had suffered a range of allergic reactions.

"I don't know where the term 'bug juice' came from, but it's truer than most people think," said Michael Jacobson, executive director of the center, based in Washington, D.C.

Currently, he said, companies are allowed to use the terms "artificial colors" or "color added" when referring to the bug-based dyes. The colors are considered natural, Jacobson added, because they are derived from an insect source.

He said his center petitioned the FDA in July 1998 to create the rule. "But the FDA moves very slowly. We submitted a 25-page document and maintained that carmine can cause severe allergic reactions, even life-threatening reactions," Jacobson said.

The dye also is listed on food labels as E-120, or sometimes simply as cochineal - but not many people know that is the name of an insect, Jacobson said.

"Ocean Spray used to use it in its Ruby Red Grapefruit juice, but has since stopped. It's hard to get a list of foods, but we know Dannon and Yoplait list it on their labels."

Adesman said even though the notion of all-natural sounds appealing, the idea of consuming "squished bugs" seems less so.

Cochineal bugs have a storied past and were used by the ancient Mayans and Aztecs as a fabric dye. The bugs are farmed on vast plantations in Peru and other South American countries and sold to the food and cosmetics industry by the ton.

Source: Newsday Inc.

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