The “Well Blog” at the New York Times had a post today about insects in food–and made the same, common error that drives me crazy:  getting the classification of the insect used to make Carmine, a pinkish dye, completely wrong. Compounding that error, though, they used this as an illustration:NOT a cochinealbug

That photo lead me to the source of their image–alas, the Taxonomy FAIL belongs to  The Center for Science in the Public Interest. [they have now removed the offending photo; you can see a screen shot here.]

That is a BEETLE. Not even remotely a scale insect, much less the actual Cochineal Scale Insect.

I’ll re-use the description of scale insects from this Vermont Extension publication:

“Scale insects are a peculiar group and look quite different from the typical insects we encounter day to day. Tiny, immobile, with no visible legs or antennae, they resemble individual fish scales pressed tightly against the plant on which they are feeding.”

I can’t make out where this original image is from, but DAMN. Someone’s Google-Fu is pretty sucky, when they can’t tell a scarab from a scale.

What do scale insects look like? This.  The proper species is Dactylopius opuntiae (Cockerell).  The beetle pictured above is probably at least 10 times bigger than these little bags of pigment and guts.

Even worse, the Times writer left a snotty remark for a commenter who tried to point out her taxonomic mistake. (The Times author used Wikipedia as a source. Egad.)

No, wait.
Even Even worse, CSPI goes on to call for a ban on these insects, which is a terrible idea.  The first part of their article is ok, if not entirely accurate:

After a decade-long gestation period, the Food and Drug Administration has finally ordered that food and cosmetics manufacturers that color their products with carmine and cochineal list them by name in ingredient lists. Until now, these colorings, extracted from the dried bodies of the tiny cochineal bug, have been hidden under the terms “artificial colors” or “color added.”

Cochineal and carmine are both labeled in food; it’s just optional. You can find foods with these labels on your shelf right now, and I am sure your lipstick has one of these pigments on its label.

Then CSPI goes on to say:

But, ideally, FDA should have exterminated these critter-based colorings altogether.

Ah, so cute. And so wrong. This insect is an important cash crop.  From an NPR story* about cochineal:

“Even though a full pound of cochineal sells for just $1.30, harvesting the bug earns enough money to feed and clothe a whole family in the impoverished highlands region of Peru. An estimated 40,000 Peruvian families depend on harvesting the bugs — which belong to a class of scale insects — to make a living.”

A very few individuals may be allergic to the compounds produced by these insects, and improved labeling is a good idea. But, frankly, I’ll take this over Red Dye #2 (derived from coal tar) any day!  Cochineal supports subsistence farmers in poor parts of the world, and is remarkably non-toxic.

The NYTimes article mostly seems freaked that there are bugs in food, period:

“the new rule contains one glaring omission. It doesn’t require companies to tell you that the ingredients come from a bug.”


Yes, there is no requirement to explicitly state that carmine is derived from an insect.  Of course, the FDA also does not require Jell-O to reveal it’s made from pig hooves and tendons, or that rennet, a key component of cheese making, often comes from baby cow stomachs  (and sometimes ends up in your Mars Bar).

Of course, eating insects as a main dish is actually quite nutritious–but I don’t think that Times author is ready for Land Shrimp or other entomophagous treats.


*NPR got the taxonomy right. Neener.

Posted by Gwen Pearson

Writer. Nerd. Insect Evangelist. Have you heard the good news? BUGS!


  1. guess we should stop eating honey too…

  2. Even worse, the Times writer left a snotty remark for a commenter who tried to point out her taxonomic mistake. (The Times author used Wikipedia as a source. Egad.)

    Though the commenter was actually wrong, too – they said that cochineal was made from Sternorrhyncha and not Hemiptera (and overlooked that Sternorrhyncha are Hemiptera). So Wrong corrects Wrong, and gets responded to snarkily by Wrong (well, technically right until they tacked on “who cares anyway, it’s just a bug”).

    I can’t help noticing that the offending image has disappeared from the article, though ;-) .

  3. WOW! I’m not even an entomologist and I can see that this is a beetle. Really??? Don’t newspapers have fact checkers anymore? Are they serious? And who cares if my reed comes from a bug? Better from bugs that who knows where. Honestly, if they started making vanilla flavoring out of bugs instead, I would try it. At least it’s natural and not some weird petroleum bi-product.

  4. Christopher–
    it was the “it’s just a bug” part that really got me. And citing Wikipedia. That’s just obscene in a reporter.

    Lots of entomologists still argue about the hemiptera/homoptera/heteroptera thing, as witnessed by a recent entomo-l series of postings. I don’t particularly expect a lay person to get that right.
    I was taught the Auchno/sternorrhyncha classification because it was thought Hemiptera was polyphyletic.
    I still think the commenter was less wrong :D

  5. BTW, I saved a screen shot of the CSPI webpage here, in case of any future editing :)
    Taxonomic FAIL

  6. I get so frustrated at this sort of thing. It comes from bugs so it must be BAD! Like those people who say “chemicals” are bad. I ran a anti dihydrogen oxide petition at work once, and people actually signed it.

  7. Argh. This is like 5 compounded mistakes on top of each other mangling the topic so horribly that the reader doesn’t have an impression remotely similar to the actuality of this topic.

    @budak: And stop using silk for clothing.

  8. The link to the picture of the scarab beetle is still up, and Tarp-Parker Pope has made no retraction of her Wikipedia-based nonsense. This sort of thing just pisses me off.

  9. Wow, what a terrible mistake! Those people need to do their research. Thanks for pointing it out.

  10. Tara Parker-Pope January 7, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    Hi Bug Girl — I’ve been reading your post with interest. I’m confused by your comment that there is a taxonomy error in the story. Can you please contact me and explain. The link you provide suggests I called it a beetle, which I never did. I think you may be referring to the comments I made in the comments section to a reader where I defended my use of the word “bug.” In that comment, i cited a Univ of Ga site, not Wikipedia, as my source. The Wikipedia reference was the first place I found confirmation of the reader’s claim that this is from the sub order Sternorryncha — I certainly didn’t use Wikipedia as a source for the story.

    I have removed the picture provided by CSPI, which does appear to be a beetle, and am trying to come up with a decent photo of this creature, which as you know, is usually covered in white wax so isn’t easily visible.

    I look forward to hearing from you.

  11. Hi Tara, good to hear from you.
    I think you may not realize that “bug” has a very specific entomological meaning in terms of taxonomy. Generally, I try not to be too anal about that, since in common usage, it means anything crawly and little.

    However, if you’re going to talk *classification*, then I (and, as you can see here, several other entomology types) will scrutinize the usage.

    The initial image linked to in your story was a beetle, and thank you very much for removing it! The error initially was CSPI’s, and it was reproduced in your post.

    Perhaps I misinterpreted your comment, but it looked like Wikipedia was used as a source to me in your comment. I find that really surprising from the NYT.

    Several of the links on this page will provide you with the correct taxonomic identification.

    Mostly, I object to the implication of CSPI (overtly) and your piece (less explicitly) suggesting that insect food or food products are unwelcome. They are a critical part of the diet in most of the rest of the world.

    You can find coverage of that in…the NYT :D

  12. Also, to give Tara credit–she has admitted the taxonomic error in the comments of the initial article.

    Oddly enough, she uses Wikipedia as a source again, though!

    I retract my “snotty” statement. From an entomological viewpoint, “It’s just a bug” has a rather different connotation than to others.

    AND–CSPI has now removed the offending photo. LOL!

  13. Does anyone know what foods contain cochineal? Have been trying to get this information on line and can’t seem to get to a site or blog that has a list of all the foods containing cochineal. Thanks.

  14. There isn’t a big list because it’s used differently by different companies. Also, some companies have stopped using cochineal so they can claim to be vegan.

    The usual places you find it are:

    pink juices or juice drinks
    yogurt (with reddish flavors)

    Most pinkish foods, especially if they are liquid, may have cochineal.

    IMHO, it’s a feature, not a bug :D

  15. Lorin, if your concern is that you’re a vegan you’ll probably want to also identify foods containing shellac. Shellac is made from another scale insect, the “lac bug”, and almost certainly contains crushed insect parts. Most of us think of shellac as a finish for wood, but it’s also used to put a shine on fruit, candy, and pills even though that doesn’t seem to get mentioned on the labels. Somehow I don’t think a sign in the grocery store saying “These apples were polished with squashed bugs” would increase sales.

  16. Unless, of course, *I* was buying it.

  17. Wow, I can’t believe people are still freaked out about this. Do they know how many insects they eat when they use foods like ketchup? And you are so right Bug Girl. I would rather eat an insect which is actually healthy versus Red Dye #9. What the hell is in that? Nothing that would be good for your body I guarantee it.

  18. Sorry Bug Girl, I meant Red Dye #2…not 9.

  19. A version is now up on the Scientific American site, of all places–with the scarab photo. What’s worse, the SciAm author, Lisa Stein, actually states that cochineal comes from beetles!

  20. OMG. That is just awful.
    They completely reproduced the news release without any fact checking at all.

    SHAME!! SHAME!!!

    Also, I saved screenshots :D

    Taxonomic FAIL, take 2

  21. Ok, the original bits were bad enough, but SciAm picks it up and does no fact check at all?

    Do people realize how many dyes and coloring agents come from invertebrates? I love dyeing with cochineal it is a wonderful dye. (Which is why it was also the source of much conflict and intrigue during colonial periods) I say label on, but if you’re going to require it to be labeled as “bug” or “insect” then I want all the coal tar derived colorants and agents labeled as “tar”. Fair is fair.

    Now I must return to enjoy the cochineal in my stew…(from three separate sources even!!)

  22. […] CSPI writes an alarmist press release about cochineal, which suggests not only are there insects in your food, but dangerous insects!  […]

  23. Amusing. Aren’t these the same people who’re all cooky about all things ‘natural’.

    I’m sure some of their ‘detoxes’ and whatnot are considered awesome and exotic by virtue of having odd stuff in them. :shakes head:

    Of course, being Danish, I’ve known about cochinea for years. (Here via Ben Goldacre.)

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