Sunday, May 20, 2012

Bug-based Food Additives: Honey, Shellac and Carmine Red

This post marks the end of Bug Week. I know - I'm sad to see it end, too. My first post talked about the bugs that the FDA allows in food. This post is a little different. Instead of talking about the bugs that can accidentally make it into your breakfast cereal, this post is about the products made explicitly from insects.


Every child knows that bees collect nectar from flowers. By jumping from flower to flower, not only do bees gather their own food, but they help to pollinate the plants as well. We owe a lot to our yellow and black friends.

We know that bees use the nectar to make honey… but that’s usually where the teaching stops. So, how does the bee turn the nectar into honey?

He spits in it.
Yep, honey is bee spit. Well, technically, honey is part bee spit. Enzymes in the bee’s saliva help to bring out the sugars in the nectar, resulting in the sweet honey we all know and love. So the next time you’re munching on some Honeycomb cereal, it might haunt you to remember that you’re technically swapping spit with insects.

Interesting side note: a lot of people believe that honey and tea help to cure coughs. While there have been studies to show that honey helps with coughs, the honey used in these clinical trials is buckwheat honey. Buckwheat honey costs about $7.50 on Amazon and is a much darker liquid than clove honey, the kind that comes in a plastic bear at grocery stores. So if you want to go the herbal route the next time you’re hacking, get some of the good stuff.


First of all, I have to admit, shellac is a funny word. Saying it slowly makes me giggle. You might know shellac for its industrial uses as a wood varnish, but shellac is often used on food. Apples and other fruits are coated with shellac so they’ll shine in the produce section, and a lot of candies (including sprinkles!) are covered in it. Shellac isn’t harmful – it’s a nutritionally empty resin.

But what is shellac?

Shellac comes from the secretions of the lac beetle (Coccus lacca) of southern Asia. These beetles get comfy on a tree and make shells out of this waxy substance. Shellac harvesters scrape these shells off the trees, boil it, and cool it into thin sheets. And presto! Shellac.

Oh, and ladies? Shellac is the main ingredient of most nail polish. That shine on your fingers? It came from a beetle’s butt.

You’re welcome!

Carmine Red

No doubt you’ve heard that Red 40 and other artificial dyes cause cancer and neurological disorders (if you follow the link, skip to the Summary section.) A product of petroleum, Red 40 is the most common red dye used in food. But carmine red, another food dye, has a more natural source – ground cochineal beetles.

Hailing from South and Central America, cochineal beetles live on cactus plants.Their red pigmentation comes from their diet – the red cactus berries. These little fellas are scooped off cacti, boiled, crushed and turned into dye. It takes approximates 150 cochineal beetles to produce one gram of carmine dye.

You’ll find carmine in eye shadow, candy, ice cream, lipstick and other food products. In fact, Starbucks recently fought some bad press for using carmine in their Strawberry Frappuccinnos™. I guess customers didn’t like spending over five bucks on a drink made partially from beetles.

I can’t imagine why…

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