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Phantom Food Menace

Insect-based Food Dyes Can Cause Allergic Reactions

Dave Arnold

Would you let your child eat beetles? Whether you like it or not, that decision is made for you by food manufacturers, restaurant cooks, and school cafeteria staff.

Over the years, we've probably all heard reports about how insects are pulverized into food dyes. It is bugs, apparently, that give some of our favorite foods and beverages their vivid red, pink and purple color.

I'm most concerned about a dye known as carmine, sometimes referred to as Red Food Dye Number 2. This ingredient is derived from the ground bodies of tiny, female cochineal beetles that live on cacti. Carmine is used in a variety of ice creams, yogurts, fruit drinks, candy and other products commonly found in school cafeterias.

Plain Sneaky

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) only requires that the ingredient is labeled as a 'color added' or 'artificial color.' But there are growing fears in the medical community over allergic reactions from products that are animal-derived, or insect-based. Rashes, swelling, and difficulty breathing are some reactions to foods containing these ingredients.

Consequently, the FDA may require food companies to label the presence of insect-derived red color additives, cochineal extract, or carmine.

According to the consumer pressure group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), current labeling legislation makes it difficult to readily identify the ingredient. The CSPI wants the FDA to refer to the colorings by their real names and specify the coloring's origins.
"Why not use a word that people can understand?" CSPI director Michael Jacobson said in a news report. "Sending people scurrying to the dictionary or to Google to figure out what 'carmine' or 'cochineal' means is just plain sneaky. Call these colorings what they are - insect-based."

Seeing Red

Carmine extract has been used for thousands of years in Latin America and Europe. In addition to food, this dye also provides coloring in cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. My concern has less to do with lipstick and more to do with school cafeteria offerings.

In one report I read, a brand of low fat strawberry yogurt was mentioned. I checked with the Brownstown Elementary School cooks where I work. They said they don't serve low fat yogurt, so that was that.

Still, I was curious about other foods that might contain suspicious-sounding additives. I poked around the school kitchen and came across carrageenan.

This dubious ingredient is an emulsifying or thickening agent that is made form Irish moss or red algae. It is used in many pharmaceutical products as well as foods. I found carrageenan in our school's flavored milk (strawberry, chocolate, vanilla) but not in the plain milk.

At least eating moss or algae isn't as bad as eating pulverized bugs. Still, I think that parents might be opposed to their children consuming foods containing mysterious ingredients. The food we purchase should be honestly labeled.

Read the Label

I must admit that in the course of growing up in a remote part of Illinois, and being what some would call a woodsman or hillbilly, I have eaten direct from nature's garden. This includes a variety of crunchy and furry things with tails. This might gross out some people, but the fact is, my parents and I had full knowledge of what I was putting in my stomach.

Today, we often take for granted the food served to us. We look at it, and if it smells right it's gone. When I mentioned carmine in yogurt and carrageenan in flavored milk, our school cooks had no idea what it was or where it came from. I was also clueless before reading up on it.

It takes more than reading labels to protect our kids. As education support professionals, we are entrusted with the well-being of millions of students.

We should join the FDA in its fight for honesty in labeling. We can help by writing our legislators and demanding they push for specific, common-language food labels. We shouldn't have to consult a chemist or encyclopedia to read a food label.

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.

Dave's View has been discontinued following the retirement of its author, Dave Arnold. Even though new columns will not be posted, we encourage you to review past columns.