• Posted by Califia Suntree on August 18th, 2008, 6:07 PM

    I came across an article this week that addressed both of my current culinary preoccupations: entomophagy and FD&C red 40. The former was prompted by David Gracer’s fascinating manifesto published in Spooning and the sudden appearance of insect-eating discussions everywhere (I’ll be posting a list of follow-up reading soon). The latter began last weekend, when I set about making red velvet cupcakes (aka RVC) for my dear friend’s birthday party. I spent some time researching recipes online, cobbling together what I hoped would be a delicious synthesis (some tips: use red wine vinegar in the batter, and put Coco Lopes in the frosting). Besides years’ worth of North/South debates (eg “My Ma in Georgia would turn in her grave if she read your recipe!!!”), I discovered that millions of bakers had been tackling the same quandry that I was now confronted with: how to make gorgeously red RVC without the dreaded FD&C red 40. Many cooks tried beets (which turn the batter brown) and others a combo of cocoa and vinegar (which appears to be, at best, vaguely rust). Nothing gets them that fetching red. And, since I didn’t want to put a damper on the party by showing up with brown, beety healthcakes, I duly dosed the cakes with red 40. And ate three of them.

    But, as the aforementioned US News & World Report article lays out, many artificial food dyes are going the way of asbestos. In the U.K. (where they, adorably, refer to the dyes as “nasties”), there is a government push to get red dye out of the food chain by next year. Reason being that the substance that makes red dye red–coal tar, a byproduct of industrial coal processing–is a class 1 carcinogen. The solution? Cochineal! This is, of course, the bright red, non-toxic dye made from ground up beetles, which is already used in makeup and other products. It’s being met with controversy, however, as some deem the consumption of ground up bugs “gross.” Amazingly, the naysayers seem to think beetle bits are less palatable than coal tar, a substance also used to fuel boilers and kill lice. I find it amazing that we tolerate any class 1 carcinogens in our food supply, no matter how miniscule the dose. (“Oh, there’s just a drop of formaldehyde/dioxin/arsenic in there, for flavor!”) So, bring on the beetles, please! Of course, it wouldn’t have solved my cupcake dilemma. My friend is a vegetarian.

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