Bugs in Your Food? The Shocking and Gross Truth
Convenient and cheap processed foods are the go-to for many people, even though we know they aren't good for our health. But...
Your instant noodles, soft drinks, and even frozen entrees may be filled with items you don't expect. Unfortunately, many of the things in these foods are things we wouldn't knowingly put in our mouth.
Related - Are Carbs a Secret Killer?
John Swartzberg of Berkley's School of Public Health recently reviewed a wide variety of foods that all contained weird or shocking ingredients.
So What Kind of Ingredients Are We Talking About?
Without even getting into how bugs infiltrate our foods, there are certain things about your favorite foods that are made up of... Unusual ingredients.
Let's Play a Game
Let's play a game, where I pretty much ruin your appetite. Fun right?
I use it on everything, but it contains powdered cellulose. The cellulose keeps the cheese from clumping.
Cellulose is simply a plant product made from a variety of plants, including wood.
Never a good idea to eat, our frozen burritos have a product in them called L-Cysteine. It's an amino acid made from hair or duck feathers.
It's basically a dough conditioner to improve the texture.
Found in many red juices and yogurts, carmine is a natural red food dye - made of boiled cochineal insects.
Swartzberg says "If they ground them up, it makes a beautiful dye."
Do you ever wonder why granulated sugar is so sparkly white?
It's beautiful, isn't it?
Some brands use charred animal bones, or bone char to achieve this.
While this isn't so bad, it will still gross you out.
In some white wines and beers, some makers use a special filtration process called isinglass.
The filter is made from the bladders of bony fish.
Jelly beans are awesome - all kinds of flavors and sizes.
Heck, they even have BeanBoozled where you can play a game to either have a great-tasting bean or get "beanboozled" into eating a less-palpable flavor.
Anyways, the sheen you see on a jelly bean is made with Confectioner's Glaze.
Basically, this is shellac, made specifically from insects in Asia. You know, the same shellac that's on a wood finish.
Ignorance is Bliss
While all of these ingredients are real and legal, the FDA classifies them all as "generally recognized as safe."
FDA Defect Levels
If you think farming is clean and there's no way that pests can get into our foods - I'm sorry to break it to you. We live in insect territory, and they love our foods.
With all of the engineered poisons and insecticides, we still have bugs that crawl all over our food.
Harvesting and packaging crops will have a lot of bugs riding along the way.
Even though we can't get rid of all of them, the FDA at least has some limits to how much we unknowingly will eat.
The FDA's Defect Levels Handbook lays it all out for us.
Staples like broccoli, canned tomatoes, and hops (in beer) all contain insect fragments. You know, heads, thoraxes, and legs. Sometimes whole insects.
Did You Know?
- Fig paste can harbor up to 13 insect heads in 100 grams.
- Canned fruit juices can contain a maggot for every 250 milliliters.
- 10 grams of hops can be the home for up to 2,500 aphids.
It's All for Aesthetics
Most of the FDA defect levels are for your mental well-being than anything.
The insect legs, bodies, and heads are less noticeable to us at the proposed concentrations. While it doesn't harm us to eat the bugs, it's still alarming to find that out.
There are "action levels" that are set by the FDA for maximum insect contamination. You're ultimately going to ingest less than these limits... but bugs are still making it into your mouth whether you see it or not.
Layla Eplett over at the Scientific American Blog estimates that “an individual probably ingests about one to two pounds of flies, maggots and other bugs each year without even knowing it.”
If you aren't grossed out yet, you understand that bugs really aren't THAT bad. If you are grossed out yet, here's some even juicier stats.
By estimation, 5,000 aphids weigh about the same as a paperclip. This is estimating that each aphid weighing in at 1/5th of a milligram.
You could essentially mash together 567,000 of these puppies into a Chum-Bucket style quarter-pounder.
Spinach is great for you, and even the bugs that come along with it.
The action limit for spinach is 50 or more aphids, thrips, or mites per 100 grams. Basically, spinach is 0.01% bug by weight.
So if you were to eat 1,000 kilograms (2.2 pounds) of spinach, you'll have eaten roughly a quarter-pounder's worth of aphid.
That must be Popeye's secret.
Chocolate is awesome, but a conservative estimate is that you will have eaten a full kilogram of bugs for every 100 kilograms of your favorite chocolate.
Making your own bread from scratch will yield you about 1.5 kilograms of insects per every 100 kilograms you use.
The FDA limit is an average of 60 or more creatures per 100 grams. So you get about 204 pests in a 12-ounce bag of frozen broccoli.
I use pepper on a lot of things and this kind of made me mad, haha.
The FDA casually allows traces of foreign matter, which is usually sticks, stones, burlap bagging, cigarette butts, etc.
I don't understand how some of that can get in there, but it looks like I'm going to be buying fresh pepper and a grinder to help with that.
While I don't really use cornmeal much, my grandparents did.
If you ever have looked at cornmeal, have you ever seen a few dark specs in there?
The FDA allows up to 13 "fragments" of rodent excreta in a 24-ounce container.
The FDA says 3 maggots in a 28-ounce can of tomatoes is good to go.
I eat a lot of peanut butter. For some reason, I'm a little less grossed out by this one.
A 16-ounce jar of peanut butter is allowed to have 136 insect fragments and 4 rodent hairs.
I don't think I'm going to eat one of these anytime soon, but the FDA limits rockfish to no more than 3 percent of your filets to contain copepods. These are parasitic crustaceans that live in the fish flesh and form pus pockets.
You ever get ready to put some pasta in some boiling water and you notice a hair in your pasta?
It's not yours, it's 1 of the "no more than nine" rodent hairs in your 16-ounce box of pasta.
This is really disheartening to me because I just ate some golden raisins that I questioned its integrity.
In 15-ounces of golden raisins, the government will allow up to 65 fly eggs.
If you think reading this article is bad, just think how bad it is to write it - and it's all the foods you eat.
9 Popular Pests You Are Probably Eating
Here are nine popular pests that you are probably eating... Every day.
I couldn't tell you how to spell it, but I can tell you any red candy has them.
Skittles, Swedish fish (my favorite), or whatever red-colored candies you love.
Carmine is a vibrant red food colorant made from crushing up these bugs. I mentioned this earlier.
Shellac, as mentioned earlier, is made from secretions from the back end of the female lac bug.
Used on your porch, furniture, or shiny candy, you'll find many Easter and Halloween candies use shellac.
Maggots, you know, those rice-shaped larvae that feast on rotting food.
Canned mushrooms are allowed to have 19 maggots in just a 3.5-ounce can. I mostly use fresh and wash them, but this pretty much seals the deal for me.
If those canned mushrooms already got a bad rap, you can have up to 74 mites in that same 3.5-ounce can.
Are we even eating mushrooms anymore?
The FDA rejects chocolate if there are more than 60 insect pieces in 100 grams of chocolate.
That equates to about eight bug parts per chocolate bar.
I'm not so grossed out by this one for some reason, are you?
If you've ever screwed around and left something in the kitchen instead of throwing it away, you've probably had fruit flies.
They are annoying, they can really take over an area, and you can also have up to 5 fruit flies in each 8-ounce cup you drink.
Pile them in, I hate them.
Oh yeah, you can also have up to 35 fruit fly eggs in 8-ounces of raisins.
They are also in your spaghetti sauce - up to 15 eggs per 100 grams.
Did I mention I really can't stand fruit flies?
Every time I read thrip I think of Mike Tyson saying "strip."
Thrips are tiny insects with wings and they love asparagus.
If you are under 40 thrips per 100 grams of asparagus, ship it.
They also love apple butter, frozen broccoli, frozen Brussels sprouts, canned spinach, and hops.
We're even eating future butterflies, how cruel.
As long as they are small, larvae and larval fragments are ignored. Don't worry, they are pretty good friends with mites, thrips, and aphids. You'll get your fill.
Aphids must be the reason why some beers really get you buzzed. Just kidding... Kind of.
FDA's limit on hops that go into the tank can have 2,500 aphids per 10 grams of hops.
So, 5% of the hops used in making your summer ale could be bugs. That's about a quarter-pound of aphid butt per 2.5 kilograms of hops.
Pantry Pests and Management
If you're like me, having uninvited guests is not welcomed.
Many pests below are most often encountered in stored food products. We'll go over how to prevent and control pests a little later in the article.
Indian Meal Moth
This is the most common food-infesting moth found in homes, grocery stores, or anywhere else dried pet foods are produced and stored.
Oftentimes, these moths breed in dried pet food or birdseed. Nuts are also a favorite breeding source; infestations have been found in nut stashes of squirrels in your attic and chimney.
Have an Indian Meal Moth problem? The female emits a sex pheromone that only male moths can smell.
Fortunately, they make sticky traps with a synthesized hormone.
The trap can attract males from 25 to 50 feet away and can last 8 to 12 weeks. Generally, only one trap is needed. You can find them at many retail locations.
These bad boys love scavenging on animal matter like dried meats, dead insects, hides, and wool. Technically, the species that feed on wool and other natural fibers or blends are called carpet beetles.
Typically you are only going to find larvae, as the adults feed on pollen and will leave the food once they have emerged from their pupal stage.
You'll find many dead adults in window sills because they like to fly to the light to get outside.
Unfortunately, the species that feed on fiber can start in your pantry and spread to damaging your valuable clothing, woolens, and furs.
Be sure to properly clean and store your natural fabrics to help prevent damage.
Sawtoothed Grain Beetle
Another common pest, these beetles feed on processed food products like breakfast cereal, bran, dried fruits, nuts, sugar, chocolate, and macaroni.
They also really like oatmeal and birdseed. These beetles are flat and can get into sealed boxes and packages of food.
Cigarette and Drugstore Beetles
These small and stout beetles are common in homes with pet food, cereals, spices, drugs, tobacco, and other packaged foods.
The two beetles can be distinguished by their wing covers. Drugstore beetles have longitudinal grooves in their wings, while the cigarette beetle is smooth.
Drugstore beetles feed on bread or any dried, food-based material. It damages book bindings and has been found to perforate tinfoil and sheet lead - easily chewing through most food packaging material.
Cigarette beetles are named due to its serious infestations among stored tobacco. They love pet food, cereal, peppers, spices, raisins, and seeds.
These beetles cannot attack whole grains, they rely on other insects to damage the kernels first.
You can find them in your flour, cracked grains, cake mixes, beans, peas, dried fruits, nuts, chocolate, spices, and tobacco.
Granary and Rice Weevils
These insects would be friends to flour beetles since they like to damage whole grains and seeds. They won't generally feed on flour or cereals unless it becomes caked together.
Having a cool name, the adult weevils are pretty similar. They are both dark reddish-brown and are 1/8" to 3/16" long. Their long snout projects from their head and their wing covers have distinct ridges.
Females lay their eggs on seeds, kernels, or other suitable foods. The larvae then chew into the seed and feed inside the whole kernel.
Less-likely to be in your home, they are more likely to be found in a grain bin and warehouses. If you do have them in your house, you should check out your popcorn, birdseed, or decorative Indian corn, or nuts.
Another bug with a cool name, these puppies love legumes. Common bean weevils like beans, cowpeas, and peas in Nebraska.
Technically, they aren't a true weevil. They are closely related to the seed beetle family.
Coming from harvesting, you may only notice bean weevils for the first time on your windows and doors as they emerge from stored seeds.
They love light and they want to escape.
Storing beans inside at a warm temperature means these bean weevils can breed continuously until there is no food left in the beans. The populations can get very high.
Spider beetles mainly scavenge, but they will infest any grain-based product that is old, moist, and maybe moldy.
Infestations of spider beetles are generally associated with infestations of rodents, birds, bats, or bee/wasps nests in your walls or attic- they feed and breed on animal excrement.
If your skin isn't crawling yet, check this next sentence out:
When an infestation becomes severe, beetles will crawl and emerge from walls between floors, attics, basements, and crawl spaces.
Are the walls moving?
Grain mites love cereals, dried vegetable materials, corn, cheese, and dried fruits.
They proliferate under very moist conditions - often found in conjunction with fungal growth.
The life-cycle from egg to adult only takes about two weeks at room temperatures.
Severe infestations result in a brownish tinge over whatever they've infested. This light-brown coloring is called "mite dust" because of the light brown coloring of mite legs.
This "mite dust" gives off a "minty" odor if they are crushed. Overcrowding in a heavily infested product generally forces mites to move and find other food sources.
Keep Pests Out With These Prevention Tips
There are several stages of these insects present in our products - egg, larva, pupa, and adult.
Since we keep our houses warm (well I'm turning mine to 50 tonight), these insects will actually keep reproducing. You can find an infestation at any time of the year.
A good first indicator you have an infestation is when you see small brown beetles, moths, or worms in your cupboards or counters.
Opened packages can become infested, but even unopened packages can be chewed through and make a home.
Once you suspect you have an infestation, identify what the pest is and find the source. It may be hard to find - unopened packaging, food that has spilled next to it, or behind hard-to-move appliances.
If a mouse finds something they like, they can hoard them in your wall, under your cupboard, or dishwasher - making it nearly impossible to find.
Wrapping It Up
Bugs are a delicacy in many non-western countries.
While this may be shocking to you, making healthier food choices may start making more sense now.
Start washing your produce, and keep up in your cupboard. Pests can infest anything, so stay vigilant on making sure you don't get an infestation.