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You put WHAT in my food?

By Pam Jacobsen / August 24, 1999



Would you drink chocolate milk with seaweed in it? Eat pudding flavored with wood pulp? Or drink pink grapefruit juice colored with bugs? Don't say "yuck!" You've probably already eaten them! Read on....

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SEAWEED, ANYONE? It's likely that you've eaten something with seaweed in it today. That's because seaweed is a very common food ingredient. It's been used for centuries. Look for it in the list of ingredients in chocolate milk, ice cream, pudding, cottage cheese, salad dressing, even packaged luncheon meats, to name a few.

But don't look for "seaweed" on the label. It's carrageenan (KAIR-uh-GHEE-nun). You may also see it listed as "carrageen" or "carragheen." To make it, a type of red seaweed is harvested along the coasts of New England and Canada.

The seaweed is raked into boats and rinsed off. Then it's taken to processing plants where it is turned into a tasteless, off-white powder. The powder dissolves quickly in water and becomes jellylike when it comes into contact with substances (proteins) found in milk.

Carrageenan acts as an emulsifier. Emulsifiers keep food particles evenly distributed in a liquid. Without carrageenan, the cocoa particles in chocolate milk would all sink to the bottom, and pudding wouldn't be as creamy. It also keeps large ice crystals from forming in ice cream, and helps hold together cakes, pastries, and luncheon meats.

One more thing: Recipes don't use much seaweed. In fact, your chocolate milk is 99.97 percent carrageenan-free, by weight.

GENUINE 'BUG JUICE' What does a tiny, reddish-brown insect that lives on prickly pear cacti in Mexico and South America have to do with candy and grapefruit juice? Answer: the color.

The insects are made into a crimson dye that's safe to use to color candy, juices, soft drinks, jellies, and dairy products. But don't look for "bugs" on the ingredient label. It will be listed as "cochineal" (COK-uh-neel) or "carmine" (a cochineal extract).

The ancient Aztecs first used these insects to make body paint, medicine, and fabric dye. Cochineal was considered very valuable. Aztec rulers required it as tribute. When Spanish conqueror Hernando Cortez came to Mexico in 1518 and discovered cochineal, he demanded that large amounts of it be collected and sent to Spain.

By the late 1500s, 250 tons of cochineal were being shipped to Spain each year! The dye was widely used until chemical dyes (called analine dyes) were developed in the late 1800s.

It takes about 70,000 of the 1/8th-inch-long insects to make a pound of cochineal. The harvesting is done by brushing insects off the cacti and into containers. They are treated with hot water, then dried and ground to make a red powder. Today, cochineal must also be pasteurized.

Cochineal is a very intense coloring agent. You probably only get one or two drops a year in the food you eat. It's also expensive. To cut costs, many food manufacturers are switching to man-made red dyes. Beets, red grape skins, and red-cabbage extracts are also used.

TREE-FLAVORED PUDDING Vanilla is America's favorite flavor. You'll find it in ice cream, baked goods, chocolate, syrups, and other foods. But are you tasting the extract from a tropical orchid's seed pod, fermented spruce tree bark, or a petroleum derivative? Check the label.

Artificial vanilla is listed as vanillin (vuh-NILL-in). Vanillin occurs naturally in vanilla "beans," too. It's the substance that gives vanilla its flavor. But vanillin, which began to be widely used in the 1920s, is also a byproduct of papermaking.

Vanillin started out being made from the fibrous parts of woody plants, such as spruce-tree bark. After special processing and fermentation, vanillin is produced. Today, vanillin used in the United States also comes from oil.

Natural vanilla comes from seed pods that grow on vanilla orchid vines (Vanilla fragrans). The vines grow in the tropics and were first used to flavor foods by Indians living in Mexico. The unripe pods are harvested and fermented to develop the flavor.

The only difference between "real" vanilla and artificial vanillin is that vanillin lacks some of the trace elements found only in vanilla pods. Most people can't tell the difference between the two. But the product label has to say which one is being used.

TULIP-NOODLE SURPRISE Imagine spending 400 hours harvesting one pound of a spice! That's what it takes to obtain saffron, the world's most expensive flavoring.

But what makes saffron doubly unusual is its source. It comes from the small, autumn-blooming purple saffron crocus. These are not the crocuses you see blooming every spring. Only Crocus sativus linnaeus can be used. All other crocuses are extremely poisonous!

Commercial growers in Spain, Greece, France, and Iran grow acres and acres of saffron crocuses each year. Only one tiny part of the plant is used: the stigma.

If you look at this flower's center, you will see three blood-red, filament-like stalks about one inch long. These are the stigmas, where pollen is deposited by insects to fertilize the plant. Saffron harvesters must hand-pick the stigmas from each crocus. It takes 5,200 stigmas to make one ounce of the spice, 83,200 to make a pound.

When added to food, saffron imparts a slightly bitter, nutty taste. Saffron dishes have an exotic perfume-like scent and a bright yellow color. Cooks use it in rice, bread, and noodle recipes. Commercial food manufacturers add saffron extract to color oleomargarine, shortening, ice cream, cakes, candy, and condiments.

A little saffron goes a long way. Most recipes call for only a pinch or two. But it is costly: Ten tiny stigmas (0.06 ounce) sell for about $15. At that rate, it would cost nearly $4,000 a pound.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society