The Bugs You Eat Every Day

The Insects You Eat Every Day Without Knowing It

Jelly beans.
The confectioner's glaze that makes jelly beans shiny is made from bugs. Getty Images/E+/Pgiam

Entomophagy, the practice of eating insects, has been getting a lot of media attention in recent years. Conservationists promote it as a solution to feeding an exploding global population. Insects, after all, are a high protein food source and don't impact the planet in ways that animals higher up the food chain do.

Of course, news stories about insects as food tend to focus on the "ick" factor. While grubs and caterpillars are diet staples in many parts of the world, U.S. audiences tend to get squeamish at the thought of eating bugs.

Well, I've got news for you. You eat bugs. Every day.

I've been a vegetarian for 20 years now, but I know full well that I consume my share of insects, like it or not. If you eat anything that has been processed, packaged, canned, or prepared, you are, without a doubt, getting a bit of bug protein in your diet. It's unavoidable.

In some cases, the bug bits are intentional ingredients, and in some cases, they're just by-products of the way we harvest and package our food.

Red Food Coloring

When the FDA changed food-labeling requirements in 2009, many consumers were startled to learn that manufacturers put crushed bugs in their food products for color. Outrageous!

Cochineal extract, which comes from a scale insect, has been used as a red dye or coloring for centuries. Cochineal bugs (Dactylopius coccus) are true bugs belonging to the order Hemiptera. These tiny insects make a living by sucking the sap from cactus.

To defend themselves, cochineal bugs produce carminic acid, a foul-tasting, bright red substance that makes predators think twice about eating them. The Aztecs used crushed cochineal bugs to dye fabrics a brilliant crimson.

Today, cochineal extract is used as a natural coloring in many foods and drinks.

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. And there are certainly worse things that manufacturers could use to color their products.

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, or Natural Red No. 4.

Confectioner's Glaze

If you're a vegetarian with a sweet tooth, you might be shocked to learn that many candy and chocolate products are made with bugs, too. Everything from jelly beans to milk duds is coated in something called confectioner's glaze.  And confectioner's glaze comes from bugs.

The Lac bug, Laccifer lacca, inhabits tropical and subtropical regions. Like the cochineal bug, the Lac bug is a scale insect (order Hemiptera). It lives as a parasite on plants, particularly banyan trees. The Lac bug uses special glands to excrete a waxy, waterproof coating for protection. Unfortunately for the Lac bug, people figured out long ago that these waxy secretions are also useful for waterproofing other things, like furniture. Ever heard of shellac?

Lac bugs are big business in India and Thailand, where they are cultivated for their waxy coatings.

Workers scrape the Lac bugs' glandular secretions from the host plants, and in the process, some of the Lac bugs get scraped off, too. The waxy bits are typically exported in flake form, called sticklac or gum lac, or sometimes just shellac flakes.

Gum lac is used in all kinds of products: waxes, adhesives, paints, cosmetics, varnishes, fertilizers, and more. Lac bug secretions also make their way into medicines, usually as a coating that makes pills easy to swallow.

Food manufacturers seem to know that putting shellac on an ingredient list might alarm some consumers, so they often use other, less industrial-sounding names to identify it on food labels. Look for any of the following ingredients on labels to find the hidden Lac bugs in your food: candy glaze, resin glaze, natural food glaze, confectioner's glaze, confectioner's resin, Lac resin, Lacca, or gum lac.

Fig Wasps

And then, of course, there are the fig wasps. If you've ever eaten Fig Newtons, or dried figs, or anything containing dried figs, you've no doubt eaten a fig wasp or two as well. Figs require pollination by a tiny female fig wasp. The fig wasp sometimes becomes entrapped within the fig fruit (which is technically not a fruit, it's an inflorescence called the syconia), and becomes part of your meal.

Insect Parts

Honestly, there's no way to pick, package, or produce food without getting a few bugs in the mix. Insects are everywhere. The Food and Drug Administration recognized this reality, and issued regulations concerning how many bug bits are allowable in food items before they become a health concern. Known as the Food Defect Action Levels, these guidelines determine how many insect eggs, body parts, or whole insect bodies can get by the inspectors before being flagged in a given product.

So, truth be told, even the most squeamish among us eats bugs, like it or not.

Sources:

  • Q & A on Shellac, the Vegetarian Resource Group blog, November 30, 2010. Accessed online November 26, 2013.