Food for Thought:
Bug parts, human hair, and skatole (don't ask) are all ingredients in the food you eat.
Monday, July 7, 2003
By David Stipp
Say what you will about American food, at least we Yanks haven't afflicted
the world with calamities like haggis, the Scottish staple made of boiled
sheep's stomach, or hakarl, an Icelandic offering of putrid shark. In fact, it's
hard to think of a down-home American recipe that would warrant inclusion in The
Joy of Cooking a Dog's Ex-Breakfastâ?"the obvious title for a collection of
demented dishes like haggis. Unless, that is, you happen to know about the
human-hair extract in U.S. baked goods, the crushed-insect residue in many of our
foods, and the flavorings made with ... something unimaginable.
Those aren't contaminants. They are official ingredients that the food
industry rarely tells us about. Some yuck factors are fairly obvious, such as the
blue mold spores in Stilton cheese. But most are hidden, since it's perfectly
legal for manufacturers to lump additives such as insect extracts under the
comforting term "natural" on food labelsâ?"or simply omit them (unlike artificial
ingredients). How many times have you seen "essence of squashed bug" listed on a
Yet if you scan the label on, say, a container of strawberry yogurt, you may
spot "carmine"â?"a popular coloring concocted from insects. Used to give red,
pink, and purple color to everything from ice cream to lipstick, carmine is made
from a pigment called cochineal. Cochineal, in turn, is extracted from dried
female insects that feed on a cactus found in Peru, the Canary Islands, and
other places. The pigment builds up in the insects' bodies; after the six-legged
moms deposit their eggs on the cactus and die, their rotting carcasses, along
with the eggs and hatched larvae, are brushed off the plants, crushed, and
then baked, boiled, or steamed to produce cochineal.
Carmine may not be yummy, but it is GRAS. That's food-industry speak for
Generally Recognized as Safe, a classification almost as all-embracing as
"natural." But skeptics say carmine can cause severe allergic reactions, and hence
should be classified as CRUDâ?"Considered Really Unsafe to Devour. (I just made up
that category.) Several years ago the Center for Science in the Public
Interest, a consumer watchdog in Washington, D.C., petitioned the FDA either to ban
carmine or to require that manufacturers disclose its creepy-crawly source on
labels. So far the agency hasn't responded.
If you want to rid your diet of bug extracts, you'll need to avoid not only
reddish foods but also many shiny ones. Shellac, made from the excretions of
insects, is used to glaze everything from apples to coffee beans. If you get
really obsessed, you may starve; blended-in insect remnants are everywhere. The
FDA permits a typical jar of peanut butter to contain over 100 bug parts. A can
of tomatoes can include one maggot or up to nine fly eggs.
Rose-scented fragrances often contain small amounts of civet absolute, an
extract from the anal scent glands of civet cats, weasel-like creatures of Asia.
Yet "when you taste concentrated civet, it reminds you of fecal matter," he
adds. Taste it? "In the old days we got civet from Asia," says Fischetti. "It
came packed in water buffalo horns. One of my jobs was to tell if it really was
civet. You had to taste it to make sure." (Instruments now do the job.)
One member of the scatological fragrance family hasn't yet been synthetically
replicated: castoreum. Extracted from beavers' anal musk glands, it is
sparingly used to impart a "smoothing and rounding note" to raspberry flavorings.
Which raises an issue that's been crying out for attention for several
paragraphs: How did things like beaver excretions find their way into food in the first
place? We'll let that one cry itself to sleep; we wouldn't want to spoil your