People in some cultures eat insects and people in others are appalled by the idea. In the US, the idea that insects are good to eat is greeted with disbelief and contempt. People in a few other countries feel the same. However, Americans actually eat thousands of insect parts every year.
There’s a problem with harvesting and storing almost any food, from beans and chocolate to flour and spices. It’s impossible to get a pure product and still be able to sell it at a price consumers can afford. Consequently, agencies monitoring food purity have standards that allow a small amount of contamination that is considered to be harmless. In the US, the federal agency in charge of assuring the purity of food is called the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA rules allow minor contamination.
For example, tomato juice is allowed up to 10 fly eggs per 100 grams. One cup equals about 250 grams, so that would be up to 25 fly eggs in a breakfast glass of tomato juice. FDA rules allow up to 30 fly eggs per 100 grams of pizza sauce, which is enough for a medium pizza, so along with the onions and peppers and pepperoni, there will be a couple of dozen well-done fly eggs, maybe only two or three per slice.
The FDA allows up to 75 insect parts and one rodent hair per 50 grams. A standard loaf of bread is about a pound, made from about 300 grams of flour, so the loaf is likely to have a bit more than 400 insect parts and five or six rodent hairs—from mice or rats. The insect parts may literally be any insect part, because bugs in the wheat are ground up when flour is made. They might include tiny fragments of beetles, maggot pieces, meal worm bits, even a couple of roach pieces. Other products made from flour will also have insect parts; macaroni or pasta is allowed up to 225 insect parts and up to 4.5 rodent hairs per 225 grams.
Chocolate is permitted to have up to 60 insect parts and 1 rodent hair per 100 grams. A typical chocolate candy bar is about 50 grams. Spices are very likely to have some insect contamination. Curry powder is allowed to have up to 100 insect parts and up to 16 rodent hairs per 100 grams. Peanut butter, and American favorite may contain up to 30 insect parts and one rodent hair per 100 grams, so a one-pound jar of peanut butter may contain about a hundred insect parts and four or five rodent hairs.
These levels are harmless, says the FDA. All flour, cornmeal, canned or frozen vegetables, fruit juices or canned fruits, cereals and most other products contain similar impurities. A few allow small amounts of rat or mouse poop. Even beer can have insect contamination, because the hops used in brewing is allowed to have up to 5% aphids.
There’s one other insect that is very common in food, as an ingredient. The insect is cochineal, which produces a brilliant crimson dye that was once the main source of red dye for cloth and made the dye worth more than gold. Now it is used to produce a pink or red coloring in food and other products. It’s used in lipstick, eye shadow, strawberry ice cream, red M&Ms, fruit juices and to give cuts of meat a healthy red color. It’s literally used as a dye in thousands of products.
It doesn’t quite end there. Food grade shellac is used to coat many food products, including chocolate and other candies, but also to coat fruit and nuts. It is made from a secretion of the lac insect native to India.
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