Crickets, Grubs and Beetles, Oh My!

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Cochineal insects like these are crushed and used as a red dye in food and beverages. Zyance/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

I once heard that the average person consumes four spiders during a lifetime while sleeping. Whether urban legend or fact, this tidbit is likely to keep you breathing through your nose during even the shortest of siestas. As a kid we used to vacation in New Hampshire on idyllic Squam Lake (Golden Pond for cinephiles). The spiders that inhabited our rustic cabins (and my bed sheets) kept me holding my breath each night. How many ventured past my lips I can’t say.

But human bug consumption isn’t only unintentional, and you may be surprised to learn you frequently snack on insects – whether you intend to or not.

Coffee giant Starbucks made headlines last week when it announced it will be discontinuing the use of a red dye made from crushed cochineal insects, and replacing it with tomato-derived lycopene.

Wait, what?! If that was your reaction just now, then you were likely unaware your Venti Strawberries and Creme Frappuccino (no whip) harbored this secret ingredient. And, like me, you probably thought that appealing red hue only came from actual strawberries.

But cochineal extract is a common additive in the food and beverage industry, and can be found in everything from yogurt to liquor. According to the FDA the ingredient must be listed on labels as either "cochineal extract" or "carmine,” after the carminic acid extracted from these South American bugs. It is also often referred to as Red 4.

Consumers have reported allergic reactions to the additive. The Good Humor SnoFruit popsicle is noted in literature as evidence that carmine can induce anaphylaxis. Others oppose its use for ethical and religious reasons (it’s not kosher), while many simply find the notion unappetizing.

But while Entomophagy, or the consumption of insects, in the Western world may be limited, populations across the globe regularly dine on such critters, and even consider them to be delicacies. From scorpions in China to mealworms in Mexico, insects provide a vital source of nutrients for many.

In fact, 80 percent of the global population eats insects and more than 1,000 species are being consumed around the globe, according to Marcel Dicke, an agricultural entomologist whose 2010 TED talk “Why not eat insects” garnered more than 344,000 views online.

Dicke says bugs could help solve the global food shortage, providing protein and vitamins for the malnourished. He also notes that each of us is already consuming 500 grams of insects per year, as processed foods like peanut butter and tomato soup contain bits of bugs that traveled from crops to production plants, as allowed by the FDA’s Food Defect Action Levels.

This got me to thinking about what other unexpected ingredients may be lurking in our favorite foods. So I did a little digging and uncovered some information I probably should have left unturned. But if you’re too curious to resist, this article will make a little sprinkling of bugs seem like nothing.

And if you’re keen to crunch on a grasshopper you can get your fix in Chicago, if you know where to look.

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