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You might not realize that a trip to your local supermarket for your weekly grocery shopping is really closer to an audition for Andrew Zimmern's Bizzare Foods Travel Channel TV show.
Sure, a heaping plateful of fried crickets will help take the edge off your hunger if you're traveling through Laos; grubs are tasty when you're Down Under; and who, really, can say no to a bowl of mealworms while staying at your college chum's house in the Netherlands? But few people realize the food or drinks from major consumer goods are giving them a mouthful of crushed bugs as part of their diet.
The female cochineal insect -- it's not really a beetle -- provides a very cool, vibrant shade of red when its crushed and is considered an FDA-approved natural food coloring. Not that you would have found "crushed cochineal bugs" on any ingredient list. Instead, they're referred to as the innocuous-sounding carmine and they're generally considered safe, though they've been known to cause allergic reactions in some people.
Up until last year, Starbucks (NASDAQ: SBUX ) colored certain frappucinos and smoothies with them, as well as its Raspberry Swirl Cake, Birthday Cake Pop, Mini Donut with pink icing, and Red Velvet Whoopie Pies. However, a public outcry over their use following a petition appearing on Change.org sent the java slinger scrambling for alternatives that wouldn't cause more problems than if it had turned to the dreaded red dye no. 2.
Again cochineal extract is safe, but if you're a vegan or kosher, you're not going to want to be scarfing down handfuls (or even teaspoonfuls) of these bugs. And you ladies might want to check your red lipsticks, too, as it's used to dye them as well. The rest of us should just sit back, relax, and enjoy their crunchy goodness. Or that's what Dannon thinks at least.
The yogurt maker also found itself the subject of a Change.org petition, but rather than crumble as fast as Starbucks did, it's telling consumers the bugs are good for them. In an interview with industry site Food Navigator, Dannon said it lists the bugs on the label as carmine as required, so if people want to avoid them, they can. "We have no plans to make any changes as we have no health or safety concerns about it," they said.
In reality, they're right, and the bugaboo about carmine is sort of the same controversy that erupted over "pink slime," which ultimately caused its maker to go bankrupt, even though there was nothing wrong with what it made. It was a manufactured scandal, and your continued ingestion of carmine requires nothing more than getting over the ick factor.
While you probably don't want to see sausages getting made either (the cochineal extract is in there, too), after polishing off a fe more Fruit on the Bottom yogurts, you'll at least be ready for a starring role on the next season of Fear Factor.
Does the thought of eating bugs make your skin crawl? They're really a delicacy around the world and today, more often than not, companies are going to far-flung exotic locales to make a profit. You can follow them -- without having to sample equally exotic menus -- with the Motley Fool's free report "3 American Companies Set to Dominate the World." Click here to get your free copy before it's gone.