Happy Valentines Day! This holiday is traditionally celebrated with a gift of plant genitalia and candy. The flowers exist to attract pollinating insects, and the candy has an insect connection you might not know about.
A common theme here at the Bug Blog is that you eat insects on a regular basis. And, frankly, that you need to get over being squicked by that. Shellac is an insect-produced product that may be part of your candy (and many other things).
What is Shellac, Anyway?
Shellac is made from secretions of Laccifer lacca, the lac scale. Scale insects look quite different from typical insects. Tiny, often with no visible legs or antennae, they kind of look like plant pimples. Like many of their relatives (mealybugs, for example), Lac scales secrete a waxy resin covering for both protection and waterproofing. That’s what’s harvested to make shellac.
Like its distant cousin the Cochineal scale insect, Lac scales are naturally occurring insects that have been turned into a domesticated animal (and a rural industry). Nearly all Lac scales are cultivated in Thailand and India. There are lots of estimates of just how many people are supported by the harvest and sale of Lac; they range between 1 and 3 MILLION people that often have been economically disenfranchised in other ways. Lac Scales are an important cash crop!
The Indian Institute of Natural Resins and Gums has several research programs that are what you would expect for domesticated livestock: documentation of genetic diversity (including establishing a national germplasm repository), breeding better hosts, and controlling parasites. It’s just that their livestock is quite tiny.
Scale insects don’t undergo complete metamorphosis as a beetle would, so they don’t have larvae and pupae. In fact, scales have their own special freaky system of growth and reproduction in which the females loose their legs and turn into a sort of tiny insect Jabba the Hutt, and even tinier males fertilize them and die.
The life cycle of the lac insect, and how shellac is made, deserves its own post. I think what everyone really wants to know is:
What Kind of Stuff is made from Shellac? Is it in my food?
Most people know that Shellac is used as a furniture finish. Audiophiles will know that the venerable vinyl LP was originally made of shellac. As a naturally occurring resin, it has a lot of other uses. Iowa State has a wonderful list of different products that are made partly or entirely with shellac; here’s just a few:
CONFECTIONARY/FOOD PRODUCTS: Oranges, lemons and apples are coated in the producing countries by using shellac to extend the shelf life of the product and giving it a shine which other natural products cannot. Sweets are coated with shellac to achieve a high gloss and a hard surface and also for protection against moisture.
COSMETICS : Hairsprays; Binder for Mascara; Additive for nail lacquer…
PHARMACEUTICALS: Shellac is used as a coating for tablets when a delayed dissolving in the intestine (“slow release”) is required.
Yes, if you take coated aspirin, you’re eating shellac.
I spent some time digging around the shelves of my supermarket to see if I could find foods with shellac listed as an ingredient. I failed, although I did manage to attract the attention of the store manager. (Pro Tip: do not tell the manager of a grocery you want to take photos of insects in their food.)
As you can see here, the words “candy glaze” or “confectioner’s glaze” can be used as approved synonyms for shellac. “Gum Lac” is also commonly used on cosmetics labels, since it sounds less like a varnish.
If you look for those key words, you can find shellac on a lot of your foods. Junior Mints are one of my favorite shellac-coated foods; Cliff Bars also uses shellac on some of its products.
Yuck! – bugs in your food and eyelashes, right? Wrong!
If you look at the FDA Handbook of Food preservation, 2nd edition (2007) you can see what the primary other choice is: petroleum-based wax. Not exactly a “green” alternative. Carnuaba wax is a plant-derived compound from Brazilian palm trees sometimes used as an alternative to shellac; it’s also used in car polish and floor wax, in addition to cosmetics and foods.
Get Over It
Here in the US, we eat a lot of food grown far away from where we consume it. My two primary addictions, Coffee and Chocolate, will never be locally-sourced foods in Michigan. And so, I accept that there will be some preservatives or other additives in my chocolate. It’s a trade-off that I accept in order to have convenient processed foods and tropical goodies.
I mean, Seriously. If you’re eating a donut or a cupcake, why the hell are you worried about a tiny amount of a compound that MIGHT have come from an insect in the sprinkles?? You know you’re eating a highly processed food that has little or no nutritional value.
Shellac is a naturally-sourced product harvested by rural folks in Asia that need the money. The shellac refining process removes any insect parts, so you aren’t eating any bug bits. You should, frankly, PREFER to use products with shellac. It can be grown and harvested sustainably in Asian forests.
Seek out shellac, don’t shun it! And enjoy your Valentine’s Day!
In 2012 as part of federal budget cuts, NBII was taken offline. I will leave this post here as a testament to the awesome resources we’ve lost.
Check out these Pollination Reources for teachers at the NBII! (National Biological Information Infrastructure) They currently have 78 lessons related to pollination and pollinators listed.
“The cacao flower, while only about the diameter of a nickel, is complex in design and behavior, necessitating a special kind of animal to pollinate it. Recent studies in cacao plantations indicate that midges, tiny flies that inhabit the damp, shady rain forest, are the only animals that can work their way through the complex cacao flower and pollinate it. A member of the same insect family as the “no-see-um” flies that plague us with their bites, this millimeter-long fly is from the family Ceratopogonidae and the genus Forcipomyia–a very tiny animal with a very long name. These cacao-pollinating midges are endemic not to plantations, but to the tropical rain forest itself.”
Sadly, the way in which we grow cacao actually contributes to low pollination rates, since the midges aren’t very happy away from the rain forest.
The interwebs are abuzz from the NPR interview earlier this week with entomologist Douglas Emlen, who is a specialist on scarab beetles. (And how funny is it that a discussion of Dung Beetles happened on a program called “Fresh Air”?!)
At about 34:00, he started telling some fun entomology stories–one of which ended with a statement that most mass-produced, pre-ground coffee, as well as chocolate, has roach parts in it.
For some people, though, including interviewer Terri Gross, this clearly this was another case of OMGWTFBUGZINMAIFOODZ! For those that aren’t afraid to know, here is the allowable amount of insects in chocolate and coffee beans:
|CHOCOLATE AND CHOCOLATE LIQUOR||Insect filth
|Average is 60 or more insect fragments per 100 grams when 6 100-gram subsamples are examined
Any 1 subsample contains 90 or more insect fragments
|COFFEE BEANS, GREEN||
|Average 10% or more by count are insect-infested or insect-damagedDEFECT SOURCE: Insect fragments – post harvest and/or processing insect infestation|
The action level means that if there are MORE than 60 insect fragments in 0.2 lbs of chocolate (100 grams, more or less), or MORE than 10% of the beans are damaged or infested, the food is rejected.
Both of these have the same FDA marking: SIGNIFICANCE: Aesthetic
In other words, it will not harm you to eat these insect parts. It simply Freaks. People. Out.
So FDA controls contamination below a noticeable level.
Americans like processed foods. However, there is a price for having someone else process stuff in bulk–some things will fall in that you might not want to know about. (You SOOO do not ever want to go to a pickle factory. Trust me.)
We also like our food PERFECT–which means that producers have to use chemicals to make fruit perfectly shaped and unblemished, as well as using lots of preservatives to keep things lasting in their packages.
Sadly, as we have become more and more disconnected from nature, we become more convinced that the world should (and can be) made sterile and safe. That is utter bullshite.
Nature is dirty. Life is dirty. Poop, rats, and insects happen, despite everyone’s best efforts.
When we demand perfection, we create an unobtainable standard that results in tons of food wastage every year.
Are convenience, perfection, and sterility really the most important things to think about when choosing foods? What about how it was grown, or how many resources are used to package and ship it? What about the welfare of the people who produced and manufactured it? In the case of coffee and chocolate, these are not insignificant issues.
In the US, most of us actually have lots of choices about our food consumption–which of these might you choose?
- Stop eating food that is pre-prepared and pre-packaged. That way you’ll know exactly what goes into your food.
- Be willing to accept some damage to food (a blemish on your apple, bread without preservatives that goes moldy in a week) so that fewer chemicals are used in search of perfection.
- If you can, join a community garden and learn how hard it is to grow food. Discover that fruit with a little insect nibble on it still tastes pretty good.
- Accept that insects will occasionally get into food, and that the convenience of having packaged food outweighs the knowledge that something with lots of legs might be in it.