The interwebs are abuzz from the NPR interview earlier this week with entomologist Douglas Emlen, who is a specialist on scarab beetles.  (A discussion of Dung Beetles happened on a program called “Fresh Air;” I am entertained.)

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 most entomologists or folks working in agriculture, this is not much of a shock. I have covered before how the FDA allows a wide variety of insect parts in most food products.

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:

Food Defect Action Level
(AOAC 965.38)
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 Insect Filth and Insects 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.

List of Fair Trade coffee and chocolate companies

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Posted by Gwen Pearson

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


  1. I don’t care about the insect bits as long as they aren’t harmful and I don’t have to think about them while eating.

  2. lol, what you don’t know won’t kill you…

    Hey wait, is that a thorax in your teeth? (that’s what the FDA means by aesthetic right?)

  3. Oh, man, I can’t even imagine the freak out if he told them about fig wasps…

  4. I read somewhere that even though vegans/vegetarians don’t eat meat, they get enough vitamin B12 (only found in animal products) in their diet because of insect contamination. :)

  5. Joshua–a very fun exercise is to offer people fig newtons before…and after explaining fig wasps.

    There is always a noticeable difference, even though they happily ate them just an hour before :)

  6. Wait, now I wanna hear about the fig wasps!

  7. Here you go–the fig wasp life cycle.

    Basically, in figs, some tiny insects are in the ripe fruit–because the fruit won’t ripen without them!

    In today’s modern varieties, you may or may not need the wasps, and so may or may not eat wasps:

  8. When I was a kid on the farm, I used to climb up the side of the grain wagons and look at what was coming out of the combine bin when we were harvesting wheat and oats. Sometimes it looked like the grain was about 25% insects, mostly grasshoppers, stink bugs, and lady beetles. The combine was evidently harvesting insects just about as efficiently as it was harvesting grain. I am quite positive that a non-trivial fraction of those insects ended up in the flour/oatmeal before it was done. Sometimes I think it would be amusing to make a specialized combine head that would allow it to harvest just the insects, so that we could turn them into protein meal. And voila! Grasshopper ranches would then be practical! If only I could then persuade enough people to eat them!

  9. A question for the foolish (willing to ignore your warnings) and lazy (where am I going to find a pickle factory?) among your readers: Just what horrors do go into making a pickle?

  10. Anything that falls into the brine pits goes in. Birds, frogs, rats, bugs, whatever. At least that is what I saw in my tour of a pickle factory, and they seemed to think that was SOP (standard operating procedure).

    My tour of a potato chip factory was shocking mostly for the conditions the workers had to endure–boiling vats of oil, jiggling rollers, etc.

    The more you know about processed food, the less you really want to eat it.

  11. Sooooo, are there cockroach leftovers in my tea?

  12. WELL SAID!!! It is amazing how many people are completely grossed out when they find out that it is common to have insects in our food. They eat the food for years completely unaware, then suddenly when they discover their might be foreign bodies in that same food they’ve enjoyed numerous times, it becomes distasteful to them. I’ve lived on a farm for 21 years and we grow a lot of our own food, insects are inevitable, consider it extra protein.

  13. I heard the NPR piece myself on the radio the other day and laughed. On the one hand, most people would be freaked out if they knew what organisms were living on their eyelashes. That said, the anecdote was just one more reason to have second-thoughts about the processed foods we consume.

    Thanks for the intelligent view and opinion on it here.

  14. Thanks for another wonderful post. Hope you don’t mind that I wrote a little thing about it on my blog. Can I use your avatar to reference you?

    As a nurseryperson and arborist, I am frequently the interface between insects and consumers. The panic caused mere presence of insects is unsettling. In this case, I am talking about their presence outside in yards and gardens, not even in food or inside homes.

    A few years ago, there was an animated advert by Ortho depicting a bloke strolling ‘bout his turf. He spies what appears to be an inchworm and utters something like “What is that? An earwig? A spider? I don’t know I just want it gone!” We are then told to use Ortho’s Bug-B-Gon and all our insect “problems” will be solved quickly and easily. No need for insect identification, no damage assessment or action thresholds, just irresponsible capitalization on people’s longing for “safe and sterile environments.”

    Thanks again for such sensible and fun writing. Ever think of teaching entomology on the West Coast?

  15. Oh waiter! There’s a roach in my coffee.

    I work in an entomology department, and I have intentionally eaten insects on more than one occasion. But, roaches are nasty and I have to admit I am a bit grossed out about the thought of any roaches in anything. I think I’ll just pretend I didn’t read this post.

  16. Honestly, I’m rather roach-phobic (I used to run screaming from the room if I saw one… I’m slightly better now, but they still get my blood up, even just pictures or video on TV), so I’m surprised this doesn’t bother me more than it does.

    But, as folks have said, that’s just part of the cost of processed foods. Or foods in general, really. Stuff is gonna end up in there that we don’t like. As long as it’s kept below some threshold where I don’t have visible roach bits in my chocolate bars and where there’s no health impact to the imperfections, I’m not going to get all bothered about it. We have to eat dead things to sustain our own lives (reverse zombies!!!), and that’s just how it goes.

  17. I’m more concerned that there might be my chocolate and coffee in roaches!

    It’s mine, MINE, and they’d better stay far away!


  18. […] turn our stomachs. Of course, to be fair, pretty much everything we consume in the world comes with some non-zero level of contamination. Whole bean coffee comes with its own set of contamination […]

  19. Fascinating stuff . . . I wasn’t aware of the regs before. Thanks!

  20. […] On the heels of an NPR interview in which an entomologist claimed there were roaches in your coffee and chocolate….I answer the question “OMGBUGZINMAIFOODS?“ […]

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