| Jr. Feature |

Secret Ingredients

Stuff you never knew could end up in your food

Don’t you love cupcakes covered in frosting and colored sprinkles? Sprinkle cookies? Sprinkles, any way you can eat them? You’re not alone; lots of kids (and even adults) love the brightly colored, tiny balls of festivity and fun. But I bet you never knew that a popular food coloring used in sprinkles actually comes from bugs. Yes, insects.

Carmine, a bright red color, is extracted from insects called cochineals. The little creepy-crawlies are harvested, sun-dried, and crushed. Their remains are then dumped in a special acidic preparation, where they turn into “carminic acid.” After additional processing, this becomes an ingredient that might show up on your ingredient list as “Natural Red 4.” Natural? Sure! Bugs are about as natural as it gets, don’t you say?

(As an aside, look at the ingredients on a candy wrapper. For many candies, other than sugar and chemicals, the other ingredients are colorings, and they are often labeled with numbers. Take, for example, Red No. 2 and Red No. 40. Those food colorings are made from processing parts of coal or petroleum! Not very good for you!)

Worried about eating bug remains in your sprinkles? While some opinions say it’s alright, because it’s undergone extensive processing and doesn’t have any “bugginess” left in it, most major hashgachos do not certify products containing Carmine. Are you relieved?

I was once in a factory to supervise the production of energy drinks. When I got there, I was asked to sign an NDA. That is a signed contract called a “Non-Disclosure Agreement,” which means I was legally signing that I wouldn’t tell anyone what goes in the production of this energy drink.

As is protocol, I had received a written list of the ingredients in the drink. The vast majority of them were names of chemicals, long scary names that I could not even pronounce.

After I signed the NDA, I picked up one of the cans and could not believe my eyes. In huge letters, it said: ALL NATURAL! That was weird, because this drink was anything but natural! I confronted the manager about it. “Excuse me, it says here ‘ALL NATURAL.’ Can you explain what you mean by that? This drink is not all natural!”

The manager shrugged and said, “It’s not my problem you can’t read.”

“That I can’t read?” I looked at him and looked back at the can. I pointed at the words and read them out loud. “ALL NATURAL.”

He raised his eyebrows and repeated, “It’s not my fault that you can’t read.”

“Fine,” I said. “Read it to me.”

The manager took the can. “ALL NATURAL caffeine,” he said deliberately. And there it was, under the absolutely enormous letters spelling ALL NATURAL, in teeny-tiny font it did, indeed, say caffeine. So this energy drink contained a long list of suspicious artificial chemicals… and all natural caffeine as well. As long as you know the labeling laws and you work around them, you can write basically whatever you want on your food package. Which is why, when people ask me if they can rely on “ALL NATURAL” as a hashgachah, I reply with an emphatic NO. Anyway, bug juice is all natural, too, and so are donkeys, amongst many other all-natural, all-treif items in the world!


Some people like to have mezonos rolls or bagels, because then they think they don’t need to wash and bentsh. It’s convenient for them. But did you know that if you’re eating a “meal amount,” or if you’re eating the food as a meal (like a mezonos roll for breakfast or lunch), the bread is actually hamotzi?

In addition, because of the food product labeling laws that we discussed, commercial fruit juice is allowed to be 80 percent water, and still be labeled “100 percent fruit juice,” as long as it says somewhere on the package, on the back, in little letters, wherever, “from concentrate.”

Halachically, to bake mezonos bread or bagels or whatever (if your mother bakes, she probably knows this halachah), instead of using water, one uses fruit juice. But if you use commercial fruit juices, and you don’t know how to be an expert label-reader, the liquid that you’re using might really be 80 percent water. Which, of course, means that your “maybe” mezonos bread may not be mezonos at all!


Are crickets kosher? It’s a trick question. While the Torah does allow certain species of chagavim, they need to fulfill three distinct simanim, which we don’t know anymore. Some Yeminites have a strong mesorah about the simanim, and therefore eat certain chagavim.

Once I was at a food show for a certain hashgachah. A non-Jew saw me walking past his booth and called me over. “Hey,” he said with a big smile, “you can eat our product! It’s kosher!” he exclaimed.

“Oh,” I said. “What’s your product?”

“Crunchy cricket bars,” the guy said cheerfully.

“I can’t eat those!” I responded.

“Sure, you can, they’re kosher! They’re made from crickets! You can eat crickets! It says so in Leviticus!” and then he proceeded to quote the English pasuk to me. (Leviticus is the English name for Chumash Vayikra).

“I’m sorry,” I repeated, “but I can’t eat those.”

The non jew shrugged in defeat. “Well, you might not be able to eat them, but they sure are kosher!”

Okay, Sir. I won’t take your word for it!


Are you surprised to see beeswax pictured here? If I were to ask you if you generally eat wax, you’d probably look at me like I just dropped in from Timbuktu. But here in the World of Weird and Wacky ingredients, nothing is surprising!

You probably have eaten wax. And all major hashgachahs certify products containing it.

Beeswax is used as a glaze to make things shiny. What things? Well, shiny candies (think jelly-beans), for one. Yes, shiny candies are coated in wax. Not all of them use beeswax, sometimes it’s palm wax or other kinds of waxes, but beeswax is a popular one.

Another popular shiny ingredient used in candies is shellac. Here’s where things get interesting. Some of you may have heard of shellac as a polish, as in furniture varnish and wood polish. Unbelievably, you probably eat it, too. Even more unbelievable is where shellac comes from, and if you thought beeswax was bad, just you wait.

In India there is a bug called a “lac.” This insect spends its life sucking tree sap and then converting it into a sticky substance known as “shellac.” Shellac was first used as a rub on wood to produce a glossy, protective coating. At some point, someone figured out that there were more things you could do with shellac. You could bleach it with a chemical called hypochlorite, make it clear, call it “confectioner’s glaze,” and coat candies and jelly beans in the stuff. Just like it does for wood, shellac provides candies with a protective, glossy, appealing coating.

Both beeswax and shellac come from inside an insect. There’s a halachic concept of “yotzei min hatamei,” something that comes out of an impure animal or insect. In general, yotzei min hatamei is assur, like camel’s milk or snake eggs. So why are beeswax and shellac considered kosher by all major hashgachahs? (If you’re wondering why honey isn’t a problem, that’s because honey is never internalized inside the bee like beeswax and shellac.)

Halachically, beeswax and shellac are not considered ma’achal, food, and therefore they are permitted, provided that no nonkosher ingredients were used to prepare them or were mixed into them.

Yet another product derived from bees is royal jelly. Royal jelly is much rarer than honey and is a different consistency. It’s extremely expensive, and is a popular ingredient in health food products and remedies. It’s not kosher.

Pure pollen, collected by the busy bees through special brushes on their legs, is very healthy, and very kosher. That is, as long as the pollen is pure, so make sure you check your labels well.


As we leave the Weird and Wacky World of the Strange and Unexpected, we’d like to thank you, Rabbi Hershkowitz, for taking the time to share so many of your great stories, fascinating halachos, and incredible knowledge with us all. Your Jr. readers thank you!



The Weird and Wacky World of the Strange and Unexpected is an interesting place to visit, but you are a label-watcher and a responsible Alert Kashrus Consumer, so you can keep yourself safe from all manner of questionable ingredients in the food you eat.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha Jr., Issue 896)

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