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In a late-‘80s “Saturday Night Live” sketch starring John Larroquette and Dana Carvey, Larroquette dies in a tragic rough-housing accident and meets an angel who knows Everything. “What was the grossest thing I ever ate?” asks Larroquette. When Carvey’s angel indicates that there are some truths we are just not meant to know, Larroquette settles for the 200th grossest thing he’d ever eaten: an earwig. Big laugh.
Vegetarians probably laughed loudest at that, knowing as we do, that food manufacturers have always acted as the public’s friendly angel, shielding us from the gag-worthy things that find their way into our food with cute little euphemisms like “natural flavoring,” “added color” and “gelatin.” But that is starting to change—slowly. Not long ago, the FDA decided to lift that shield a bit, mandating that a popular red food- and cosmetic-dye be listed as carmine, carminic acid, or cochineal formerly listed ambiguously as “added color” or “E120” by 2011.
Great news for people with known cochineal allergies, but bad news for consumers who want the FDA to list cochineal as “insect-based.” Makes sense. It would be fair to people avoiding eating bugs for religious reasons—and we love to protect the rights of religious groups. It would be fair to vegetarians who, on principle, avoid eating things with legs—and, well, I guess no one likes to protect our rights. But what about people who are just grossed out by bugs? Sounds like a medical problem. Those people must have some rights. Right?
Calling cochineal “insect-based” also makes grammatical, factual, and plain-old common sense. The cochineal insect is, in fact, a scaly, beetle-like insect that loves to cluster on cacti and produce carminic acid to scare away predators. Hey, if it looks like an insect, clusters like an insect, and shoots acids at its enemies like an insect, we might as well just call it an insect. Right?
Wrong and wronger. The FDA claims that the term “insect-based” is unnecessary because consumers can easily look up cochineal in the dictionary. True, but why should we have to carry a copy of the old Oxford-English every time we hit the grocery store? We really shouldn’t, but if we did, we might be surprised. And grossed out.
Bust out the dictionary in the beauty aisle and you’ll find a whole bunch of nastiness that could headline any vegan horror show. Keratin for strength? Hair and Hooves. Ew! Collagen for bouncin’ and behavin’? Connective tissue. Ew! Ew! Allantoin for soothing healing? Cow urine. Ew! Ew! Ew! And look at the ingredients of that tube of Ultra Color Rich lipstick in Twig you bought from Avon because they don’t test on animals: Carmine. Dead ground-up bugs.
Maybe the cosmetic companies aren’t trying to hide anything from us, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the FDA is more concerned with protecting the profits of the corporations than the rights of consumers. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that if every can of fruit cocktail suddenly contained the word “insect,” Del Monte sales wouldn’t exactly go up.
But what can we do about it? Plenty. Write to the cosmetic companies, or contact your friendly neighborhood Avon rep and tell them to use beet juice instead of cochineal, soy protein instead of collagen and keratin, and comfrey instead of allatoin. Tell the FDA that vegetarians, orthodox Jews, and bug-hating consumers deserve to know what they’re buying, even if they don’t have an angel who knows everything.