You wouldn't expect a bunch of squished-up bugs to provide the coloring in your yogurt or fruit drink, but in fact it's quite common. The bugs in question are cochineal scale and the Polish Cochineal. They've been used to make red dye since at least the 15th Century.
The cochineal insect is a tiny, parasitic scale insect native to South America and Mexico. It lives on and feeds off a certain type of cacti.
Grind 'em up just right and the scaly insects make a deep ruby red goop called carmine, which is used not just as a food coloring but also to make ink, rouge and other cosmetics and even artificial flowers.
This stuff is red.
But although carmine has been used for centuries, the folks at the Center for Science in the Public Interest don't think that's any reason to keep using it and they are asking yogurt giant Dannon to go find something else to add color to their fruit yogurt.
A Dannon spokesman says there's no reason to be concerned about it.
"Many of Dannon's yogurts have no added color, and in some of our flavored yogurts we use colors derived from natural sources, such as various vegetables and fruits, as well as carmine," Michael J. Neuwirth, senior director of public relations at Dannon told ConsumerAffairs. "Carmine is a safe and commonly used red coloring that many food makers use. It is used in many food and other products because it is safe and it delivers the best color."
Strawberry, Cherry, Boysenberry, and Raspberry varieties of Dannon's "Fruit on the Bottom" line all contain the critter-based dye, according to CSPI, as does the Strawberry flavor of Dannon's Oikos brand of Greek yogurt. Two flavors of Dannon's Light and Fit Greek use the extract, as do six of its Activia yogurts. Dannon uses other natural colorings, such as purple carrot juice, in its Danimals line of yogurts marketed to children.
So what's wrong with using crushed bugs, apart from the cringe factor?
Well, as CSPI tells it, some people can have allergic reactions ranging from hives to anaphylactic shock after eating carmine.
Dannon's Neuwirth says the presence of carmine is clearly listed on the label: "Any Dannon product that contains carmine clearly identifies it by name and lists it as an ingredient on the product label to make it easily identifiable for anyone who prefers to avoid it. Anyone who has an allergy or preference to avoid a particular ingredient is already reading labels carefully - which we encourage - and can easily avoid it if they choose."
For its part, CSPI takes credit for the labeling, which is says is the result of a CSPI petition to the Food and Drug Administration. Previously, companies could obscure the presence of the insect extract by labeling it "artificial color." CSPI had urged the FDA to go further and describe carmine as "insect-derived," making it easier for vegetarians, Jews who keep Kosher, or anyone otherwise averse to eating such ingredients to avoid it.
"I have nothing against people who eat insects, but when I buy strawberry yogurt I'm expecting yogurt and strawberries, and not red dye made from bugs," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Given the fact that it causes allergic reactions in some people, and that it's easy to use safer, plant-based colors, why would Dannon use it at all? Why risk offending vegetarians and grossing out your other customers?"
CSPI is sponsoring an online petition on TakePart.com urging Franck Riboud, CEO of Dannon's parent company Groupe Danone, to replace the bug-based dye with more of the fruit advertised on the label. About 6,500 people had signed the petition the last time we looked.
Not just Dannon
It's not just Dannon that's sacrificing insects for the dining pleasure of its customers, although it's CSPI's target at the moment. We checked a few other popular yogurts and found it in Yoplait.
We did not, however, find carmine in Gerber's Graduates blends, Stonyfield Organic Fruit on the Bottom yogurt or Chobani strawberry Greek Yogurt, just to name a few. If it matters to you, take Neuwirth's advice and read the label -- or just avoid anything red.