MAY
1997

 

 

 

By
Tom Turpin
 
Professor of
Entomology
Purdue University

 

 

 

 

 

05-22-97

Insects And Vegetarians Feed On Plants

According to the Wall Street Journal, some vegetarians were recently shocked to learn that the fruit juice they had been drinking was colored. It wasn’t the coloring, though, that created the expression of concern.

So what exactly raised the ire of the vegetarians who had been drinking fruit juices made a bit more pleasant to the eye? The coloring agent used was cochineal dye, a dye made of insects. The new-found knowledge that their fruit juice contained animals caused the vegetarians to cry fowl — make that foul!

Cochineal dye is produced from the body of the cochineal insect. This animal is a scale insect very similar to the plant pest known as a mealybug. Cochineal insects feed on the prickly pear cactus and are common in the southwestern parts of the United States and throughout Mexico.

These insects have been used to produce a crimson dye for many years. Native Americans collected the bodies of female cochineal insects for that purpose prior to the arrival of the first Europeans to the shores of North America. Once dried, the pigments used in the dye are extracted from the bodies.

Cochineal dyes have long provided the red colors used by Native Americans in production of brightly colored fabrics used in clothing and blankets. In fact, these insects were commercially important until the late 1800s when aniline dyes replaced the insect-derived product.

The Wall Street Journal didn't mention whether or not the activists were willing to wear clothing colored with cochineal dye. But it was clear that they were upset about the prospect of drinking a product that contained cochineal.

Insect products aside, concern about eating insects or insect parts will provide a difficult dilemma for strict vegetarians. In reality, almost all plant material will contain some insects or insect parts.

Insects commonly feed on plants, as most gardeners know. In fact, many insects function ecologically as primary consumers — animals that get their nourishment from plants. Also consider that many insects are so small that they are hard to see with the naked eye. The result is that most plants have insects on them even if we can't see them.

It is for the above reasons, and the fact that it is impossible to remove all insects from plant material, that the Food and Drug Administration of the U.S. government has established acceptable levels of insect parts in food for human consumption. Many plant-derived foods contain a few insect parts. It just can't be avoided.

So to the vegetarian activists who don't want to consume insects or insect products, good luck! It might be easier to admit that fruit fly larvae or aphids are just partially-digested plant material in a six-legged package!

 

Writer: Tom Turpin
Editor: Andrea McCann