In general, I find “Center for Science in the Public Interest” to be a very reputable organization and I always enjoy reading “Nutrition Action,” their flagship publication. I usually find myself in agreement with Michael Jacobson, the microbiologist who has been the Center’s guiding light since 1977. Michael has been vocal about what he sees as the unnecessary use of food dyes, chemicals that really serve only a cosmetic purpose, often just aiming to increase the appeal of foods of low nutritional quality. He’s right. Do we really need multi coloured fruit loops and lollipops in every colour of the rainbow? Or yogurts that give the impression of having more fruit than they actually contain?
Michael has taken Dannon to task over one issue: If you eat Dannon’s "Fruit on the Bottom” strawberry, raspberry, cherry, or boysenberry yogurt, or the strawberry variety of Dannon’s Oikos Greek yogurt, you are eating carmine—an extract made from the dried and pulverized dead bodies of the cochineal insect. That dye is also used in two flavours of Dannon’s Light and Fit Greek line, as well as in six of its Activia yogurts! Using red food dye of any kind in these products is deceptive, since consumers rightly expect that the pink or red colour in their strawberry, raspberry, cherry, or boysenberry yogurt comes from the fruit pictured on the label, not some extract made from six-legged creepy crawlies. But it certainly saves Dannon money by replacing berries or cherries with a food colouring.
For most people, carmine is safe, but for a small number of consumers, it can be a serious problem. Some experience hives after consuming products with carmine, others have more potentially life-threatening anaphylactic shock. At the very least, Dannon should indicate on labels that carmine comes from an insect. Vegetarians who don’t have a dictionary handy would be especially interested to know. Perhaps if Dannon thinks its yogurt is insufficiently pink or red, they should use more strawberries, raspberries, cherries, or boysenberries—and not allergenic extracts made from insects.
While I agree with the intent here, namely to eliminate the unnecessary use of food dyes, I think perhaps this particular issue has gained such notability due to most people’s general revulsion of insects. The fact that carmine derives from an insect has no bearing on its use as a food dye. Nobody would object to using beet juice as a red food colouring. Why not? Simply because they deem it to be natural, and therefore safe. Why is an insect considered any less natural than a beet? It isn’t, but neither is that of any relevance. Food dyes are subject to the same regulations, whether they are synthetic or natural. What matters is what the safety trials show, not the source of the dye, so while I agree that I would rather not see carmine used in food (at least without not labels), it is because I don’t like deception, not because I’m repulsed by an insect extract. In either case, you can rest easy knowing that the dye is a highly purified compound that has no insect properties, so you’re not actually eating any bugs with your morning yogurt.