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We live in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Pizzagate, chemtrails, the pandemic, everything is ripe misinformation. Hell, we’ve even talked before in The Broiler Room about how often conspiracy theories pop-up around food. We have more information at our fingertips than any generation in history but we lack discernment. Only information that aligns with our world view or lights up our amygdala- regardless of its truthfulness- stays with us. But there’s one conspiracy theory that’s been everywhere lately and I can’t stay silent anymore. This week we’re talking about eating bugs.
For the last several years, conspiracy theorists have claimed that some sort of shadowy, global cabal is set to enslave humanity and force us to eat insects. It wasn’t taken too seriously, for obvious reasons. This bizarre line of thought stayed mostly in the fringe corners of the internet until recently. This January, the European Union approved the sale of some dried and powder insects for human consumption. This brought the conspiracy theory onto the global stage giving lots of bad actors the chance to fight against a fake boogeyman to grab a headline.
It’s been legal in the US to sell all kinds of bugs for human consumption for a long time but like so many things today, context has been lost. In 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization published a 200-page report saying that eating insects could fight global hunger, malnutrition, and climate collapse as an alternative protein source. At least 2 billion people already eat insects with some regularity as part of their diet so this isn’t some new shit. I’ve been to many wellness and food expos over the last 20 years and there’s always at least one booth selling cricket flour or chocolate covered ants.
I get it. Bugs are gross and lots of people don’t want to eat them. Sure, shrimp, crabs, and fruit flies are all part of the same taxon, Pancrustacea. Clearly people are cool with eating water bugs, just not land and air bugs. In fact, lots of people eat bugs all the time and don’t know it.
I went vegan in 2003, before smartphones, Facebook, or free wifi. Back then, there were barely any products on the market that were labeled as vegan so you had to learn all the words food labels use to hide ingredients that are from animal or insect origin. Vegans don’t eat insects so they’ve been on this no-bug train for way longer than most groups. There are bugs in so many of our foods, and I’m not talking about incidental bugs that fall on production lines or anything like that. They are right there on the ingredients list of so many products we have in our homes. There are 2 main culprits: confectioner’s glaze and carmine.
Confectioner’s glaze, sometimes called natural food glaze or shellac, is used to make things like candy, furniture, pills, and nail polish shiny. It’s on Whoppers, jellybeans, Junior Mints, basically any candy or chocolate that is shiny on the outside. My sweet wife bought some store-brand dark chocolate covered raisins as a treat for us and I had to break it to her gently, “Babe, there’s bugs in there.” She was not pleased.
Confectioner’s glaze is a resin secreted by small female lac bugs, a scale insect, to protect their eggs while they mature on tree branches all over India and Southeast Asia. This resin is scraped from the tree branches, then processed and sold to companies all over the world. Seriously, it’s in everything.
Carmine, sometimes labeled crimson lake, natural red 4, or natural red flour, is made of ground up cochineal, another small scale insect, found across the Americas that live on cacti. They produce carminic acid in their bodies to deter predators, but that acid is what gives them the bright red color when crushed that humans have loved for thousands of years. The main exporters these days are Peru and the Canary Islands. Carmine is in countless red cosmetics like lipstick and blush but more importantly, it’s used in so many food products as an alternative to Red 40, the controversial artificial dye. It’s in most sausages, many strawberry products like yogurts and jams, baked goods, beverages, candies, cake mixes, and even fruit juices. You might remember a lifetime ago when Starbucks got in some hot water for having carmine in their Strawberries and Crème Frappuccinos, among other products they carried. They immediately phased it out after the bad press and everyone went right back to forgetting that carmine is in everything.
There are countless more examples of all the ways people consume insects and use insect by-products– like honey and silk– every day without ever connecting them to their insect origins. I could write a whole piece about wasps and whether figs are vegan. This is all a long way of saying that the current fervor around eating insects is extremely disingenuous. Bugs and bug by-products are hiding in plain sight on ingredient labels all over our food system and have been forever. Whether you choose to eat insects, seafood, meat, and/or poultry is a personal decision but one that you should stay informed about. We should all know what the fuck is in the food we’re eating so we can make those choices with our eyes wide open. But unless you’re vegan, you’re probably eating bugs. No global cabal or insane conspiracy theory needed.
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This week we’re kicking off a new recipe series for dishes to bring to all your summer cookouts. First up, a potato niçoise salad that’s an easy way to bring something new to any table.
Ok, this is f’ing delicious. This one is on repeat.
Would it be possible for your to talk about almonds one day? I'm confused- they use a lot of water, but not as much as a cow. Should I eat them in the name of climate change or not?