Henry Ford was obsessed with soybeans. He once wore a suit
and tie made from soy-based material, served a 16-course
meal made entirely from soybeans, and ordered many Ford
auto parts to be made from soy-derived plastic.
>The Food Snoop
>The red eye
>DO YOU KNOW what passes your lips, or even what's on them? Comestible
>ingredients of unobvious origin are hardly rare. Carrageenan and agar-agar,
>thickeners and emulsifiers in a wide swath of food products, are made from
>algae. Rennin, a milk-curdling enzyme used in cheese-making, originates in
>an animal's � usually a calf's fourth � stomach lining. Glucosamine, the
>popular joint-health supplement, derives from the exoskeletons of
>crustacea. Vanillin, the compound that gives the vanilla bean its
>distinctive flavor, is also obtained from fermented spruce bark, and
>petroleum. Frosty lipstick may contain fish scales. A particularly
>startling and fascinating ingredient � in juices, lipsticks, carpets, and
>sundry other products � is the cochineal insect, from whence comes carmine,
>the reddest red.
>Cochineal, often erroneously referred to as a beetle, is a scale insect
>native to Central and South America, and, like its dread relative, the
>mealybug (feared by houseplant cultivators everywhere), is a parasite that
>literally sucks the life out of a plant. The cochineal's chosen host is the
>cactus genus Opuntia, of which the prickly pear is a member. The females of
>the cochineal species are the useful party in the production of dye.
>Wingless and inert, they munch on the cactus leaves, waiting for their eggs
>to mature. During this period, three months or so, they swell with the
>carminic acid that is the source of the vivid red for which they are
>cultivated. (The "resinous exudation" of a different species of scale
>insect is also used � to produce shellac. Who knew these suckers to be so
>In colonial times the cochineal had a serious impact in the areas where it
>was cultivated, and this continues to a lesser degree in the present day �
>though the impact of its cultivation has not been on the immense scale of
>the beverage many of us consume every day, coffee. But that's another
>story. Peru is still a major exporter of cochineal, and though a pound of
>the insect goes for less than $1.50, "harvesting the bug earns enough money
>to feed and clothe a whole family in the impoverished highlands region....
>An estimated 40,000 Peruvian families depend on harvesting the bugs ... to
>make a living," according to a National Public Radio piece on the industry.
>The cochineals are brushed off the cactus, treated with dry or steam heat,
>then dried and ground up. For food use in the United States, the dye must
>also be pasteurized. About 70,000 bugs are needed to make a pound of
>Indigenous peoples have used cochineal as a fabric dye for centuries, and
>the Mixtecs considered it quite precious. The Spanish had a monopoly on the
>cochineal industry for at least a century, exporting tons of it to Europe
>from the Americas beginning in the 1500s. Curiously enough, cochineal
>replaced kermes, a European oak parasite that had hitherto been the source
>of red dye (hence the word carmine). Cochineal's red proved truer, and it
>was in high demand until the 1800s, when synthetic dyes began to be
>manufactured. Cochineal was apparently used to dye the famous redcoats of
>By the 1980s cochineal extract in food products had been mainly replaced by
>aniline (petroleum or coal-based) dyes, such as FD&C red no. 40, which is
>sported by Doritos, Life Savers, and countless other products on
>supermarket shelves. Cochineal's use in food seems to have made a comeback
>in the 1990s, in connection with concern over the possible carcinogenic
>nature of aniline dyes and a general cultural trend in favor of "naturally"
>flavored and colored food products. A cursory tour of Andronico's aisles
>today reveals "cochineal extract," "carmine," or "carmine color" in
>Tropicana orange strawberry juice, Kern's aguas frescas, and Yoplait berry
>yogurts and mousses. Red, pink, or orange foods that say merely "natural
>color" may also contain cochineal.
>A few years ago the Center for Science in the Public Interest led a push to
>have cochineal either banned or clearly disclosed on labels, citing the
>danger of anaphylactic shock for those allergic to the substance. Besides,
>eating insects is not kosher, halal, or palatable to vegetarians, though
>one cochineal industry executive declares that vegetarians need not fear �
>the proteins in food-grade cochineal extract have been removed during
>processing. Sounds like he doesn't quite get it. As you might imagine, the
>cochineal industry tries to keep a low profile. I'm looking forward to
>their first TV spot, panning across the misty highlands of Peru, slowly
>focusing in on the heart-warming sight of the natives in traditional dress
>crushing bloody-looking bugs. Then cut to a cute container of raspberry
>yogurt. Kind of like a Tejava ad, except more graphic.
>I don't have a problem with eating bugs. I get a bit of a kick thinking I
>can eat a substance that's also been used to create some of the most
>beautiful and famous pieces of fabric history has yet to see. Besides,
>cochineal extract is so concentrated that one probably doesn't ingest more
>than a couple drops a year. Unless you're really into strawberry-flavored
>foods. I'm more worried about those mouse genes they might be splicing into
>my corn. I have yet to see a single label with the disclosure "contains
> E-mail Masha Gutkin at lydialeapfrog@....
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