As you wander the aisles and aisles of red and pink candies trying to pick out the perfect sweet treat for your valentine, consider this: You could be asking him or her to eat bugs.
The food coloring agent carmine (also known as K-carmine, cochineal extract or, sneakily, Red 4) is derived from boiled beetles called cochineal bugs. Because of its red tint, carmine can be found in a handful of the brightly-hued candies perfect for the season.
Candy with a side of bugs just doesn't sound like a Valentine's Day message anyone would mean to send. "It's a question of, 'Does a consumer have the right to know what's in their food?'" says Lisa R. Young, Ph.D., RD, CDN, adjunct professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University and author of The Portion Teller Plan. "If you want to eat fried grasshoppers, go ahead. But if you don't know what you're eating and what it comes from, you're at a loss to make that decision."
Luckily, carmine likely only poses true health risks for those who may be allergic to the substance. (There have been significant adverse reactions, enough that the FDA requires carmine to be listed on ingredients labels.)
However, the ingredient certainly poses problems for vegetarians and vegans, says Young. She says she generally suggests steering clear of food items with long ingredients lists or unpronounceable ingredients in favor of unprocessed foods. That way, you can avoid ingredients like carmine and others with a high ick factor.
Perhaps one of the most heeby-jeeby-inducing facts of all is that carmine -- like anything that comes from a plant or animal source -- can be deemed "natural" on food labels.
Of course, some of the artificial alternatives, like Red 40, the most widely-used food dye in the U.S., aren't necessarily preferable. Red 40, among other criticisms, comes from petroleum, LiveScience reported. And although there's little conclusive scientific proof, some critics claim food dyes are toxic, act as carcinogens or add to hyperactivity.
But it's not just Valentine's Day sweets to look out for: Both Dannon and Starbucks have come under fire for coloring products with carmine. The coffee giant eventually ditched the bugs in favor of lycopene, which comes from tomatoes, and may even have the added benefit of providing some antioxidants, says Young.
"Shifting away from artificial stuff is always better," says Young, even if it's a compound the FDA has deemed safe, so it's important to read nutrition labels carefully before making your Valentine's Day purchase. "It might be considered safe, but it might not be doing you any good."