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Long before Europeans discovered South America, the Native Aztecs were crushing insects to create some of the most beautifully colored fabrics that would stay bright and vibrant for years. They would harvest the female cochineal insects, crush them, sun-dry them, and then use the crushed powder as a potent dye.
This process is still practiced today – mainly in Peru and the Canary Islands where they harvest prickly pear. The cochineal is attracted to this pear, and harvested by the truckload along with the bristly fruit. It takes 70,000 bugs to make just one pound of the red dye. The cochineal extract is called carmine or, as seen on a food label, Natural Red 4.
For years, this dye was used in many foods without any mention of its buggy origin on the label – they were just called “natural colors.” Of course, good things never last, and soon many complaints were filed to the FDA regarding very severe allergic reactions to foods dyes with the cochineal extract.
While you might not have an allergy to the cochineal extract, it may be interesting to know that you may be wearing it daily as a dye in your lipstick or other cosmetics. If it’s got a little reddish tinge to it, check the label – it might have a few hundred crushed bugs in it!
Which isn’t to stamp this practice as good or bad – but if you thought using materials quite as raw as bug carcasses for makeup was a thing of the past, think again.
Beware: Genetically Modified Microorganisms at Work
Xanthan gum is a common ingredient in many health food products. It is a thickening agent you may find in your almond, rice or coconut milks, ice cream, salad dressings and a variety of other foods you eat regularly.
While xanthan gum occurs naturally as a result of bacteria consuming overripe fruit and turning it black, the food industry employs (without pay) a bacterium to make xanthan gum for them. Food labs take plant materials (most commonly corn sugar) in a big liquid vat and add the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris. Just click your heels, and voila! – fermentation occurs, the resulting goo is dried and processed, and a bio-engineered food-safe version of xanthan gum is produced. Whether it matters or not that these microorganisms are genetically modified is another question.
Beware, many gluten-free products use this highly processed bio-engineered thickener instead of gluten as a binding agent. While no major side effects are listed, gas, bloating, and loose stools as well as migraines and skin irritations have been reported.
There are no known health risks from ingesting xanthan gum, except for the risk of choking in infants. Remember, it is a thickening agent that can easily be overwhelming to an infant’s swallowing mechanisms, so check the labels of any liquids you plan on feeding to your baby.
Here’s a list of some other food additives that are genetically modified:
- Citric Acid
- Corn Syrup
- Glucose Syrup
- Vitamin B-2 (Riboflavin – used as a coloring agent)
- Vitamin C (Ascorbic acid – used as a preservative)
These and other genetically modified microorganisms enhance the productivity of certain chemicals that were previously either impossible to employ on an industrial level or economically impractical.