What they put in food really bugs some folks


Those of you unfortunate enough to know me very well understand that I have a few, let’s say, “quirks.”

For instance, I never eat birthday cake because I once saw spittle fly from the mouth of a child who was blowing out the candles on his cake. And though it will probably result in me permanently having my “man card” revoked, nothing creeps me out more than my hands being dirty, probably the result of being dirty for seven straight months in the desert during the first Gulf War, since I grew up caked in mud and dirt and it never really concerned me as much as it did my agitated mother.

Amateurish attempts at self-realization aside, it’s pretty safe to say that I have issues with foreign contaminants being anywhere near me.

And that is why my head nearly spun off my neck Tuesday morning when I was talking with our esteemed publisher, Susan Lyons, and she asked me about why the Chinese are putting bugs in Dannon yogurt.

“What?”

“I don’t know the whole story,” she explained. “But my mom said she heard something about Chinese factory workers putting bugs in Dannon yogurt.”

Now, I know Susan’s mother, Shirley Cobb, pretty well. She has a take-no-prisoners, shoot-from-the-hip style to her that I love, and I know she was not just firing out some rumor she heard while standing in line at the grocery store. This required all my journalistic skills in tracking down the real story here, and determining whether or not the Chinese are, in fact, poisoning us through yogurt.

Side note: Had it been speculated that they were putting bugs in potato chips or pulled pork I would have been more concerned. But since yogurt, and really anything representing something even close to being healthy, is not in my regular dietary program, my fear was more for others than myself in this particular instance.

Putting back on my reporter hat, I did what every good modern newshound does — I went to Google. And, once again, I found what I was looking for pretty quickly.

According to an article by Zoe Mintz on ibtimes.com, a bright red dye used in berry flavors of Dannon yogurt comes from crushed-up bugs, as cited by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a food watchdog group. The red color in the yogurt comes from carminic acid, which is produced by crushing cochineal insects, an anthropod native to Mexico and South America. Apparently, cochineals are harvested on plantations in Peru and the Canary Islands, according to the story.

A Dannon spokesman said the company does not hide from its ingredients, and that it clearly posts carmine as an ingredient. He also stated that it is safer than other red food dyes, which are coal- or petroleum based and pose a greater health risk.

Still. Eww.

This got my mind spinning and my stomach churning. I had to know more, and kept searching. A story on salon.com only made it worse for me.

Apparently, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization has a report touting the nutritional and environmental benefits of eating bugs, and how this could solve a worldwide hunger problem. The FDA, according to the story, also has a “Defect Levels Handbook,” which lays out how many insect parts, whole insects, rat hairs, etc. can be contained in things we eat.

Layla Eplett wrote a guest blog for “Scientific American” and estimated that “an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without knowing it.”

Another story on the Huffington Post site claims that there are about five fruit flies in every one cup of juice, and that spinach is often dotted with caterpillar larvae and larval fragments, which makes me wonder if Popeye was actually getting strong enough to beat up Bluto/Brutus from the nutrients in the spinach, or if he had just got ticked off from eating larvae and was lashing out ...

But I digress.

I guess the point here is to know exactly what you are eating whenever possible — and to always follow up on a lead from Shirley Cobb. It always takes you somewhere interesting.