Bug-Based Food Dye Should Be ... Exterminated, Says CSPI

Labeling Improvements Aside, Carmine Still Causes Allergic Reactions


Carmine and cochineal extracts, the red food dyes made from the dried bodies of the cochineal insect, should be exterminated from the food supply once and for all, according to the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is considering a rule that would require disclosure of carmine or cochineal on food labels—a proposal that CSPI says is an advance over the status quo in which the dye can be described merely as “color added” or “artificial color.” But while the proposed disclosure rule would help consumers who know they’re allergic to carmine avoid it, a ban would protect those who might not know.

CSPI contends that the FDA’s proposed rule lowballs the number of people who experience allergic reactions to carmine and cochineal each year, and that the expense of emergency-room treatment of those reactions far outweighs the costs of relabeling or reformulating carmine-containing products. Furthermore, CSPI urges that if the FDA doesn’t ban the substance in food it should at least require labels to disclose that it is “insect-based,” which would be useful to people who wish to adhere to kosher or vegetarian diets.

“Why tolerate a food coloring that sends a couple hundred people to emergency rooms each year, yet its only purpose is cosmetic?” asks CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. “Here’s an idea for food companies: If you want to make your strawberry or cherry yogurt a brighter shade of red, why not just add more strawberries or cherries instead of resorting to insect juice?”

CSPI is sending the FDA summaries of 32 adverse reaction reports it has received since it first petitioned the FDA about carmine and cochineal extract in 1998. Typical symptoms included itching, swelling of the eyes or tongue, difficulty breathing, hives, and headaches. Carmine is used in various yogurts, fruit flavored drinks, candies, and other products.

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