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The food that really bugs us


Sandy Smith

Bugbear ... insect-based food additives upset consumers.

Bugbear ... insect-based food additives upset consumers.

Fancy some ground up insects in your frappuccino or how about in your child's strawberry yoghurt? If you didn't know insects might be part of your daily diet you aren't alone. Recent revelations about the use of crushed cochineal insects in our food have been provoking outrage from consumers.

In March, US coffee chain Starbucks came under fire after it was exposed for using cochineal extract in its strawberry frappuccinos, smoothies and pastries. More than 6500 people signed a online petition asking Starbucks to stop using the crimson dye extracted from cochineal insects to colour products such as its Strawberries & Creme Frappuccino because it wasn't vegan and consumers "don't want crushed bugs in their designer drinks" said the website. The company backed down and said a tomato based extract would be used instead. "What originally began as a story to inform vegans that their Starbucks' Strawberry Frappucino was no longer safe to consume ended up being an issue that bothered many people," said the website.

In this country, Food Standards Australia and New Zealand, says that cochineal is used in a variety of everyday products including savoury sauce, flavoured milk, confectionery, cake, dip, dairy dessert, ice cream and yoghurt and "must be listed by its name 'cochineal, 'carmines' or 'carminic acid' or by its food additive number 120". If you're unsure, then check the food label.

It seems that when it comes to eating insects whether they are disguised in a strawberry frappuccino or visible in a bug stir fry, most people only have one reaction — disgust.

"Disgust is an emotion that evolved to protect us against "threats, contagious disease and toxic substances, by motivating us to keep our distance, and making the idea of putting potentially poisonous or infected stuff in our mouth utterly foul," says Dr Daniel Kelly, author of Yuck!: The Nature and Moral Significance of Disgust and an assistant professor of philosophy at Purdue University in the US. "Finding out that you've been unknowingly ingesting ground up creepy-crawlies with your breakfast seems like a situation almost perfectly designed to push people's disgust and outrage buttons," he says.

But while we are mostly disgusted by eating insects other countries embrace it says Kelly. "There's a lot of cultural variability in what people find disgusting, and what they are willing to eat without batting an eye," he says. "The idea of eating any kind of insects might seem inherently repulsive to many Westerners, but that's not a universal sentiment. People from other cultures with different traditional cuisines can be much more comfortable eating what we Westerners might consider revolting, likewise they might consider some of what we enjoy gross. Vegemite anyone?"

In her new book That's Disgusting: Unravelling the Mysteries of Repulsion, Rachel Herz writes that countries such as Thailand, Vietnam, Colombia, Brazil and Mexico have a huge appetite for bugs with the most popular dishes being "deep-fried crickets, barbecued larvae and grilled tarantulas". The emotion of disgust evolved "to engender an avoidance of rotten and toxic food" she writes and we learn which foods are disgusting through our cultural heritage. Many Westerners enjoy eating pungent cheeses, says Herz, for example, Brie and Gorgonzola but they would probably be disgusted by the idea of eating Natto, a fermented soybean dish enjoyed by the Japanese which smells "like the marriage of ammonia and a tire fire".  Many Asians meanwhile "regard all cheese — from processed American slices to Stilton — as utterly disgusting and the literal equivalent of cow excrement." Other foods guaranteed to disgust include Casu Marzu, a sheep cheese popular on the Italian island of Sardinia, which contains live maggot larvae and the Icelandic delicacy hákarl, rotten shark meat, "which causes most newbies to gag or vomit."

One person who is not disgusted by eating insects is entomologist Skye Blackburn. "Eighty per cent of the world's population eats bugs on a regular basis so we are actually in the minority that don't," she says. For Blackburn the bug business has never been better. She offers a range of products through her Butterfly Skye's Bug Shop including chocolate covered crickets, mealworm cookies and lollies containing edible crickets, mealworms or scorpions. "We are currently expanding our range of edible insect products and at this stage we sell over 1000 Creepy Creature candy lollipops per week. Several stores through Australia sell the lollipops and we get a lot of sales directly through our website," she says. Blackburn is also in demand at food festivals and corporate cooking demonstrations. "I am in favour of eating insects but do understand that this is hard for some people to get their head around but I would encourage everyone to try eating a farm raised bug at least once in their life." The next opportunity for a bug taste test will be in October at the Sydney International Food Festival, where Blackburn will be giving cooking demonstrations using bugs.

In the future Herz believes our aversion to eating insects could be reversed from disgusting to virtuous. "With the right spin and artful camouflage, eating wriggling, squiggling, squeaking, insects is in vogue and getting ever more popular" she writes. "If entomophagy (insects as food) became popular, a way to end world hunger would be within reach." She could be right. According to the Guardian, a policy paper on the eating of insects is being formally considered by the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and there are plans for a world congress in 2013. Suddenly cochineal doesn't seem so bad.

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  • Fifty years ago every ten year old knew that red colour came from insects. Now they don't even know that milk comes from cows. City folk have become so distanced from the source of their food that they are happy to build suburbs on prime market gardening land.

    Western Vic
    Date and time
    May 29, 2012, 11:33AM
    • This city Gen-Y girl knew Cochineal was from insects, and has known since at least 10 years of age, if not earlier.

      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 11:44AM
    • Yep, I knew that when I was a kid. But now, 'food comes from supermarkets doesn't it?'

      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 11:56AM
    • I didn't think the source of cochineal was news either.

      Why does Starbucks even have to add colour colour to a strawberry frappuccino? Real strawberries are colourful enough in a smoothie, so I guess there aren't any real strawberries in the frappuccino either. I wonder if it even has real milk in it.

      Presumably there is a soy option otherwise the addition of cochineal wouldn't trouble vegans so much.

      Come to think of it, I'm surprised a vegans would set foot in a Starbucks store at all. Perhaps vegans are different in the US...

      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 12:06PM
    • Yep that's right, it's all about ignorant city folk. Like all of the great evils of our time. Nice one BB.

      Professor Bollocks
      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 12:25PM
    • A bit precious there BB, the news of cochineal has just been vocalized by PETA etc.
      Anyway I'd rather have natural colouring than what's concocted in the labs these days.
      Don't find the consuming of bugs that wild, it's just what you are culturally accustomed to.
      We are just accustomed to a fabulous array of foods and spoilt except for the new revolution of junk/packet crap masquerading as food/sustenance. That's where I draw the line.

      a country gal
      Date and time
      May 30, 2012, 1:00AM
    • Yeah i dunno my mate who is a teacher (tertiary ed) says she took in some walnuts and the students had no idea nuts came like that. Unbelievable. Don't parents show their kids anything anymore?
      Parents are beleiving their kids when they say they know everything, more like it... much the same as you can't tell them to clean up after themselves either. I work at a Uni and some of the students are truly disgusting. Some of them have never learned to flush a toilet, or put their lunch rubbish in a bin 5 metres away.
      Life skills are not being taught to these kids. Learning what walnuts or cochineal is, is a life skill. Really it is - it shows the kid there is more to the world than you expect.

      red coat
      the resistance
      Date and time
      May 30, 2012, 8:16AM
    • @ pb - don't tell me, I know - that is why you don't wear red lipstick.

      Date and time
      May 30, 2012, 12:06PM
  • And honey is bees' vomit. Big deal. Cochineal has been around forever as a food colouring. You are not eating the crushed up beetle. You are eating the colour extract.

    Pretty sure a lot of vegetable-based colouring comes from some things you wouldn't otherwise eat as well.

    I guess colouring derived from coal-tar is a more acceptable substitute - at least no beetles get killed.

    craig schwartz
    level 7-1/2
    Date and time
    May 29, 2012, 11:47AM
    • That's not quite right Craig. Strictly speaking, 'cochineal' is the ground-up bodies of the insects and 'carmines' are the colours extracted from them.

      Date and time
      May 29, 2012, 12:32PM

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