Unusual Food Ingredients

We are in the midst of the 2004 holiday season, a time when food consumption reaches new heights (or weights!). Because of the increased emphasis on food during this time of year, it’s interesting to review some of the more unusual ingredients used in the foods we eat.

First on the list is carmine (i.e., carminic acid), a red dye extracted from the dried bodies of the tiny insect commonly known as cochineal (Coccus cacti). The dye is extracted by boiling the insect bodies and precipitating the carminic acid, as well as other solid material (i.e., insect parts), with alum, cream of tartar, stannous chloride, or acid oxalate of potassium. Extracting the dye from cochineal is nothing new; carmine has been obtained from this natural source for centuries and put to uses other than food (e.g., cosmetics). South American countries, such as Peru, are one of the largest producers of carmine in the world, although its use has decreased tremendously over last 100 years due to cheaper synthetic dyes.

Shellac – used to impart a shiny surface to apples, candies and other foods – is derived from a resin excreted by a tiny beetle (i.e., Laccifer lacca) that is about the size of a pinhead. The beetle secretes the resin to hold its eggs to the bark of a tree. Because the tree (Ficus benjamina) is cultivated extensively in India and Thailand, these countries produce largest quantities of shellac.

And then there is Skatole, which is Greek for “dung.” Skatole is the odiferous chemical found in feces. What, a fecal compound used in food? Well, it turns out that this foul smelling substance, which is also naturally present in beets, imparts an odor at low concentration that lends itself quite well as an additive to vanilla ice cream. Yummy.