Crushed bugs in Dannon yogurt the tip of the odd food ingredient iceberg

Dannon's strawberry yogurt is colored using an additive made from crushed bugs. Some are grossed out, but Dannon's use of crushed bugs in its yogurt isn't that bad, and it's not the only everyday food with an unusual-sounding ingredient. 

Dan Henry/AP/Chattanooga Times Free Press
Dannon yogurt has bugs in it. Four-year-old Uriah Moore leans away as he is trying to be persuaded to eat yogurt as a snack while competing with other preschoolers in the Kiddie Olympics at Finley Stadium in Chattanooga, Tenn, May 16.

The yogurt maker Dannon is under fire for using carmine (a red color additive made from crushed beetles) in its product, although its far from the only company to use the stuff. Although a tiny percentage of the general population is allergic to carmine, much of the opposition to the additive seems to be coalescing around the idea that it's "gross" to eat bugs.

The most interesting part of this story is not the crushed bugs, per se – we should probably, as a society, be eating a lot more bugs since they're high in protein and environmentally sustainable – but rather how many other things regularly slip under our radar when we buy industrially produced food for our families.

Castoreum – If you happen to be a beaver, then you have castor sacs, gland-like pouches located in your nether regions that contribute to the scent-marking of your vast wilderness territory. If you happen to be a person, you're probably eating trace amounts of castoreum when you eat artificial vanilla or some artificial berry flavorings.

Rennet – Traditional cheese sometimes contains an ingredient that is not entirely to everyone's liking: an extract called rennet made from the dried and clean stomachs of calves. Not all cheeses are made with rennet, however – vegetable rennet, microbial rennet, and acid (such as citric acid) are also used, depending on the cheese and the cheesemaker.

Carrageenan – Long ago, fast food milkshakes found a secret weapon in their battle for the perfect thick, creamy texture: moss plucked from ocean rocks, processed into an additive called carrageenan. An extract from this seaweed keeps the butterfat in the shake from separating out, and thickens the texture.

Pretty much anything found in a typical hot dog – Since Roman times, or before, it's long been understood that finely-ground sausage is a perfect dumping ground for semi-edible and otherwise questionable bits of animals. Between the strong flavorings, the grill-imparted char, and the fine texture, just about anything goes. A recent survey found each additional daily serving of processed red meat like hotdogs was associated with a 20 percent higher risk of dying, making the daily dog equivalent to playing Russian roulette. On the other side of the coin: on a warm summer evening, nothing beats a hot dog.

Now, with the exception of processed red meats, all of the above, including crushed bugs, are fine for you. You may not want calf stomach in your cheese or seaweed in your milkshake, but you'll walk away from those encounters more or less intact.

Far scarier than bugs and mystery meat are the laboratory-formulated chemicals – the artificial sweeteners, stabilizers, preservatives, and more that make our modern food industrial complex what it is. Most are perfectly safe. Some are questionable. Some turn out to be dangerous (possibly or probably) only after years of production and consumption.

In aggregate, we could read every label of every food we eat, and avoid anything with an additive known to be questionable. (As a professional food reviewer, I can tell you: good luck. Many labels are 30 or 40 ingredients long and often include catch-alls like "natural flavors" or "artificial flavors" that could conceal just about anything.)

Alternatively: We could go to more farmers markets, buy more whole foods in general, eat less processed food, make our own yogurt (it's easy!) and cook more from scratch. It's work, but the reward is a longer, healthier life. And we can still enjoy crushed bugs on special occasions.

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