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You Have Been Eating Insects All Your Life

Even if you don’t practice entomophagy and consider insects part of you regular menu, you do regularly eat insects or insect parts. ‘No way!’ you say? Think again.

You may eat insect fragment, whole insects or larvae unknowingly with your bread, beer or peanut butter. And you most certainly will eat food additives that are made from insects. Chances are that if something is colored red, be it yoghurt or jellybeans, it is made from insects.

Where Do Bugs in Food Come From?

While pantry pests usually infest your food products in your home, bugs can get into food anywhere along the food chain – during growth, harvest, production, storage in the warehouse, or grocery store. These insects make it mostly as fragments into your food because they get chopped up somewhere along the food chain, usually during harvest or processing. But it is not uncommon that entire bugs and larvae can be found as well.

Of course, insects are also used on purpose two make to major categories of food additives: coloring and confectioner’s glaze – more on that below.

How Much 'Insect" Is Allowed in Food?

Government control bodies like the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) permit a certain number of insects or insect parts in food products because it’s practically impossible to keep them completely out.

Even if they aren’t ingredients, the FDA’s Food Defect Levels Handbook outlines the permissible amount of bugs (and other natural contaminants) allowed in all kinds of food.

The allowed Food Defect Action Levels by the FDA outlines the permissible amount of insect fragments like heads, thoraxes, wings and legs as well as entire insects and larvae.

Here are a few by far incomplete lists of what amounts of insect debris is OK to be found in staple foods such as flour, spices or canned fruits. That means anything below that limit shown in the lists is legally acceptable.

Also note that all of these are merely aesthetic limits so that the look of your food doesn’t gross you out. But it wouldn’t harm you if you ate more insects.

Insects And Insect Fragments in Spices

insect defects in spices

Insects and Insect Fragments in Fruits, Vegetables, Seeds and Mushrooms

insect defects in fruits, vegetables, seeds and mushrooms

Insects And Insect Fragments in Other Staple Products

insect defects in staple products

While these levels represent limits and the actual amount consumed is probably lower, on average an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it.

Food Additives Made from Insects

Food Coloring

The tiny white insects (called Cochineal bugs – Dactylopius coccus)  that feed on cactus turn into a brilliant red color when crushed. This cochineal extract has been used as a red dye or coloring for centuries. For instance, the Aztecs used crushed cochineal bugs to dye fabrics a brilliant crimson. Today, farmers in Peru and the Canary Islands produce most of the world’s supply, and it’s an important industry that supports workers in otherwise impoverished areas.

Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus)
Cochineal (Dactylopius coccus)

Carmine, the name by which this red pigment is known, is used to color food and drinks red. Carmine can be found in  meat, sausages, processed poultry products, pastries, desserts, icings, pie fillings, jams, preserves, gelatin desserts, juice beverages, varieties of cheddar cheese, yogurts, ice-cream and a wide variety of other dairy products, sauces and sweets.

Is carmine safe? Carmine isn’t kosher, and it isn’t vegan. But other than that, it’s pretty benign. It even is is one of the very few pigments considered safe enough for use in eye cosmetics. The cosmetics industry is a major consumer of insoluble carmine pigment, particularly for hair and skin products, lipstick, face powder, rouge, and blushes. Another major application is to color pharmaceutical products such as ointments and pills.

To find out if a product contains cochineal bugs, look for any of the following ingredients on the label: cochineal extract, cochineal, carmine, carminic acid, E120 or Natural Red No. 4. (information taken from an excellent overview here).

There was a huge uproar in the U.S. some 10 years ago when customer found out that their  favorite Strawberry Frappuccino and Strawberry Banana Smoothie used carmine for its red coloring. As did Raspberry Swirl Cake, Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing, and Red Velvet Whoopie Pie. Starbucks quickly replaced carmine with lycopene, a natural, tomato-based extract.

Confectioner's Glaze

different colored shellac varieties
Some of the many different colors of shellac.

Confectioner’s glaze, food glaze, resinous glaze, and pharmaceutical glaze are pretty names for shellac, a resin secreted by the female lac (Laccifer lacca) bug on trees in the forests of India and Thailand. During harvest, a lot of these bugs end up in the  raw resin and die. Approximately 25% of all unrefined, harvested lac resin is composed of “insect debris” and other impurities according to the Shellac Export Promotion Council.

After being processed, shellac naturally dries to a high-gloss sheen.

An alcohol-based solution of various types of food-grade shellac is called resinous glaze, confectioner’s glaze, pure food glaze, natural glaze, or confectioner’s resin. In foods, shellac is most commonly used as a coating or glaze on confections, chewing gum, fruit, and coffee beans. Lac dye, red like carmine, (another insect product), may be used as a coloring in foods and beverages.

Generally,  any hard-coated, shiny candy contains a shellac coating or glaze (M&Ms  is one notable exception.) Shellac may appear on the label under different names. The two most common ones in use today are “resinous glaze” or “confectioner’s glaze.” In general, all Easter candy (eggs and jellybeans) are coated. Halloween candy (candy corn) is as well.