Dried cochineal beetles -- yup, this is where the color comes from.

Dried cochineal beetles — yup, this is where the color comes from.

The timing of this is so funny.  Today my email inbox and my Twitter feed both filled up with word of a new food advocacy opportunity — joining the fight against Dannon Yogurt’s use of cochineal coloring in their yogurts.  When I saw it, I have to confess: I laughed.

See, J. and I took the boys to a favorite spot, Old Sturbridge Village, this weekend.  (For the uninitiated, OSV is a wonderful living-history museum that’s a recreated 1830s village.  It’s precisely the kind of thing my kids absolutely adore.)  It happened to be a day when the historical interpreters were showing visitors how ice cream was made in the 19th century, and they were passing out copies of the “receipts,” straight from cookbooks written in the early 1800s.  I instantly noticed that the first recipe, for a strawberry-lemon ice cream, called for “cochineal.”

I was pretty sure I knew what that was — crushed beetles — and I was right.  Moreover, I was dead curious as to what cochineal was doing in an early American recipe, and how the settlers at Sturbridge would have known about cochineal, and how they got it, and how long the stuff might have been in use in American cookery if it was showing up in a cookbook from 1828.

So I did a little research, and found that cochineal has actually been in use, as both a food coloring agent and a fabric dye, since sometime around the 15th or 16th century.  It eventually fell out of favor because petroleum dyes appeared, and they were cheaper and easier to manufacture; but lately, it’s experienced a bit of a resurgence because of the growing discontent with the safety of those same petrol dyes.  In other words, companies are using this stuff to try to avoid using other, nastier stuff.

Interesting, from a historical geekdom perspective.  And odd, and funny, that the petition to stop the use of cochineal in yogurt should show up in my inbox just a few days after I’d started thinking about the stuff.  But it’s fortuitous, actually, because the freshness of my interest in the subject helped me to feel fully confident that I’m NOT going to join the campaign against cochineal.

The arguments against cochineal appear to be, as I’ve read the opposition to its use:

1. It’s BUGS.
2. Some people might be allergic to it.
3. Some people might not know they’re eating it.
4. It’s still BUGS.

To which I respond:

1. Yup. And I may not relish the idea, but in fact, many cultures LOVE to eat bugs.
2. Yes, a very small portion of the population may be allergic to cochineal, as they might be allergic to any relatively uncommon allergen.  I once had a friend who was allergic to cranberries.  She avoided things containing cranberry.
3. Except in the case of the infamous Starbucks frappuccino drinks that contained cochineal, everything else people are concerned about has an ingredient label.  Cochineal, or carmine as it’s sometimes called, is listed where it’s used, just like all other ingredients.
4. Yes. It’s still bugs.  And you know what else is a bug?  A lobster.  (Yeah. Think about THAT for a minute.)

Here’s the real issue.  I don’t want to trivialize anyone’s allergies to cochineal/carmine, or to ANYTHING, and as the parent of a kid with a petroleum-dye allergy, I understand that it can be frustrating to be allergic to something that other people don’t believe is harmful.  But that particular argument aside, the whole aversion to cochineal amounts to not much more than a squeamishness about where it comes from.

If there were any evidence that the stuff, naturally derived or not, is actually harmful to people (other than those unfortunate allergic few), I might have more patience for the campaign against it.  But in fact, there’s no evidence that cochineal is harmful to the general public in any way, any more than cranberries — which were VERY harmful to my allergic friend — are harmful to most of us.  And while there is a movement afoot, a concentrated effort, to remove this admittedly unappetizing, but relatively harmless, coloring from foods, there are SCORES of other food advocacy issues that are still unsolved.

Roundup on our crops?  Harmful to all of us…and still happening.
Antibiotics in our meat?  Harmful to all of us…and still happening.
High-fructose corn syrup?  Harmful to all of us…and still prevalent.
Hydrogenated oils?  Harmful to all of us…and still prevalent.

And that’s just a very, very short list.  I could go on, but I think you get my point.  It’s not that I think beetles in our food are golly-gee swell, but honestly, they don’t even make the top 50 when I think of things that I’m really concerned are hurting eaters in America.

Sure, companies like Dannon could stop using cochineal and start using something like beet juice, if they feel that the berries in their yogurt don’t actually make the product “red enough” for consumers.  And that would be just fine.  But do we really want to focus our efforts, as food advocates, on that sort of a change — one that would be satisfying from the perspective of our appetites and our cultural preconceptions, sure, but would also be ultimately pretty benign?

There are so many committed food advocates rising up in this country right now.  And it seems to me that there are almost as many “causes” as there are people to champion them.  Can you imagine what would happen if, instead of going after things like the bug-derived coloring that was used by early settlers (by the way — talk about going back to the “old ways” in food preparation!), we all banded together to take on just ONE of the huge issues on my list above?  What would happen if, instead of worrying about the offended sensibilities of people who don’t like to see “carmine” on a label, we worried about throwing our entire collective weight behind making sure that the antibiotics that are entering our bodies through the commercial meat supply and creating medicine-resistant superbugs that KILL people, can no longer be used?

I can’t even imagine that kind of power we could have if we could focus on the big things.  But in the meantime, I worry not just that the fight against beetles in yogurt is a relatively toothless one; I worry that it’s the sort of thing that also makes smart, committed food activists look like precious elitists to the rest of the world.  I mean, isn’t there something just a little bit dainty and twee about wringing our hands over cochineal?  We could be worrying about food insecurity, we could be worrying about the insidious damage subpar foodlike products are doing to our bodies, and we could be putting all of our time and effort into making those things better.  Or we could flail our arms around in the air and cry about how gross beetles are.

Big food companies are smart.  And they’re smart enough, I think, to give in on something relatively painless — like cochineal — so that they can store up collateral for later, when we come complaining to them about something that REALLY matters to us.  On that day, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear the yogurt people (or whatever industry it may happen to be) say, “Well, we HAVE listened to you.  We removed the beetles from your yogurt cups.  Remember that?  Now we’re not really prepared to go further.”  And that may or may not be where the issue rests, but it certainly would make our argument more challenging than it might need to be.

Ultimately, I don’t care about the beetles.  If you wish to avoid them, do — I probably will be, not so much from a philosophical perspective as from the fact that I don’t eat very many processed foods, so I probably won’t run across them often.  And I should add that if this whole “Berries Over Bugs” campaign is successful, I’ll be perfectly happy for the people who have put their time and energy into it.  But I won’t see it as a major victory for the food movement.  I’ll still be waiting for that, and hoping that the next action item that takes over my inbox and my newsfeed is one that will make a measurable difference to the health of more than a few.