As a kid, I loved red pop — so nose-tingling, throat-searing delicious. Then, one hot summer afternoon, we were sitting on the porch swing with my great-grandfather, Bob Studer. He was more of a watcher than a talker, but he brightened when I popped my frosty red pop. “You know how they make that stuff.” It wasn’t a question.
As a kid, I loved red pop — so nose-tingling, throat-searing delicious. Red pop made cola taste like soda water.
I’d score a 15-cent bottle at our neighborhood store. Our mom placed a finite quota on our pop consumption — one a week. I often had to chug it on the way home and hide the bottle. Now that’s the way to savor its deeply complex refreshment opportunity.
Then, one hot summer afternoon, we were sitting on the porch swing with my great-grandfather Bob Studer. He was more of a watcher than a talker, but he brightened when I popped my frosty red pop.
“You know how they make that stuff.” It wasn’t a question. Well, I’d guess luscious fields of exactly ripe strawberries and orchards of sweet cherries plus a hint of bubblegum.
“No,” he said, “beetles.”
I’m in the middle of a swallow and feel it reversing course.
Beetles? Bugs? Insects? Please say it isn’t true.
“It’s true. They don’t want us to know that,” he said.
No kidding. Word gets out and red pop will be pooped.
I haven’t had a red pop since — 55 years. I see it in the stores and feel crawly down my throat.
Fast-forward to 2010. Hundreds of red-colored products, from lipstick to nail polish to yogurt and candy, come with “color added” in their ingredient lists. If it says “artificial color” or “Red Dye 40,” it’s not bugs.
A simple, undescribed “color added” often means, ugh, crushed, dried female cochineal cactus beetles. It’s all-green natural, and that’s a trend.
Since the 16th century, these bugs have been slipped into products to make them red or pink. Straight cochineal is bright orange. Processing turns it to a brilliantly red dye called carmine, a more appetizing term for its buggy past.
The FDA reports that not many folks suffer allergic reactions to this “all-natural food coloring.” The Center for Science in the Public Insect, I mean Interest, has been arguing for a decade to get it totally banned.
FDA did catalog at least one untoward case. A girl broke out in hives after a red pop. Call 911.
Since the gov’s report in 2009, food makers have been more exact about detailing the red color. They’ve added “colored with carmine” to some lists. We’re supposed to know that carmine is marketspeak for beetle dust.
The FDA’s official position is: “Cochineal extract and carmine are safe for the majority of the population.” For the rest of the population, hey, that’s why we have emergency rooms.
Cosmetics maker Aveda goes for full disclosure on its red lipstick, insisting it’s NOT made of “crushed shells, wings and eggs of female beetles.” That’s a relief.
Next year, FDA will require anything with beetle red be admitted to on the label. This could be the end of red pop as we know it, so stock up.
Contact Jim Hillibish at firstname.lastname@example.org.